The results are in and I officially finished 22nd overall. Again, what a great ride. I felt pretty solid the whole way through. It was really great to see a lot of familiar faces, friends and co-workers all slugging it out in their own right.
For some reason I decided to get out onto the road real early. Too early, actually, but I was anxious to get to the race without worry. The temperature gradually dropped as I got close to Occidental, CA. I hit the main lot where it sat around 31º for most of the morning. I was worried I brought the wrong amount of layers, but once the sun came out it warmed things up. I was one of two early starters, but around 8am the YMCA parking lot quickly filled up with race organizers and other early morning go-getters. I stayed in my car with the heat on, trying to catch some Z's before I needed to register.
"Event Full" the sign said. Shit. Really? They didn't sell out last year, and the only way to race this morning was if you pre-registered, which wasn't clear on their site, and when you clicked on the pre-registration to Eventbrite it tried tricking you into signing up for the entire series. I failed to see the tiny button off to the side that allowed you to register for the single event. I drove all this way, early in the morning to get turned away. No way! Registered or not I'm going to do the Hopper. I asked the organizers what the deal was. They said the event was so popular this year, they weren't expecting it to sold out, and they only had permit to allow a cap of 400. I did get on the wait-list, which was seven deep already. Good chances for me as a lot of people tend to not show up.
More and more people flood in, including my good friend Jeremy who hadn't done the Old Caz race before. He's looking strong this year, and I expect him to do quite well. More of our mutual riding buddies show up as well as a handful of my co-workers from Specialized. It felt really great to see a lot of familiar faces, something I love about racing in general. The camaraderie of the impending sufferfest that's about to happen. I check back with the organizers and bam! I've got my spot. #409 is mine. I rush back to my car and start to prep.
I'm looking around and notice that I'm probably one of maybe 5 full-suspension bikes in the field. Everyone's rocking super light, lean and mean cross bikes. Most of the mountain bikers I saw were running hard tail 29ers. The majority of which had aggro skinnies and a rigid fork, easily 5-8 pounds lighter than my setup. Strictly static weight, with the exception of tire choice, I prefer fatter vs skinny because of the extra confidence going down the sketchy fire roads. I wanted a challenge, and a challenge is what I got.
I warm up on a climb after downing my first 5-Hour Energy ever. A lot of my riding buddies swear by it, saying it gives them a nice kick of extra endurance. Loaded with caffeine and vitamin B12 I thought it wouldn't hurt. 15 minutes or so till start time. I cruise around the lot one more time and chat up a few more friends getting ready for the ride. Time to line up.
I get towards the front, a few rows behind the pros. I spy Leipheimer, Stetina and Geoff Kabush. Some real heavy hitters. Just behind them is Ben Capron and the usual crushers. I'm out gunned, but I've got to play my long-game if I have any chance of cracking the top 30 or so. Lined up to my left is fellow team-mate Paul Connelly. We met at the Tahoe Trail 100. To might right is Will, where we've raced at Leadville, Marathon Nationals and a smattering of XC races. Behind me is my friend Jeremy looking focused and ready to crush. And we're off.
Start Your Engines
The start was mellow, and to my surprise they route us straight up the main road vs the back door like last year. I wasn't expecting the sudden change in pitch, but I was able to hold my pace. After a minute or so the attacks started to ensue. I'd say over 30 guys come around me, humping their bars for better position. "Stay cool." It's going to be a long day in the saddle. I watch my heart rate and make sure not to burn any matches on the long climb out to the first ridge. I second guess myself and my fitness, wondering if I had enough leg power to hold my own. We'll see. Just wait for the first descent.
Just like last year on the first major bend of the five-mile descent, three or four guys overshoot the turn and come tumbling down onto the ground and over the hill. I gently slow down and carve my around before we hit dirt.
Get some gravel road riding under your belt before entering this race. You're skin will thank you for it.
A mile into our descent, and I'm already catching and passing a ton of guys, all with their foots out trying to stay upright as I push some weight into my tires and let it rip around the corners. This is where I'm thankful for my full-suspension. Lots of control and comfort. I feel a lot faster than last year, probably due to all the riding at Skeggs, which really upped my descending skills. A couple more mountain bike brethren join me in the pursuit of making up time on all the cross guys on the downhill. The lead group and chase groups have formed, and you can just make out the split. By the time we hit the flat section and onto the main drag I can make out the Levi group a minute or so out as I begin to regroup with the string of chasers.
Stay with a group as much as possible. You'll most likely save energy, carry a higher speed and not get lost along the way back.
I was worried my X01 32t drivetrain setup would be ill geared for the fast road sections, but I happily found myself keeping up with a gear or two extra as I spun my way through the forming pace lines. As my group of eight or so were building up speed I saw a mountain biker with skinnies come off the back of the group we were chasing. He was a little wobbly in his backwards approach, but I kept to the right and let him drift by. There was a small gap between myself and the rider on my wheel, and I guess the mountain biker decided to squeeze in, causing a huge wreck at 24 miles per hour. All I heard was the touch of wheels, a pop and at least several guys hitting the pavement hard. Damn, close call. I look back and people were sprawled out onto the ground. I kept going and caught onto the group ahead of me. I later found out that an ambulance was called, and that everyone was ok for the most part.
Learn to ride in a pace line. Not only will you travel safely as a group, but an organized group will be much quicker.
My small group of chasers latch onto a much bigger gaggle of guys. We worked together for the most part before the first spike of a climb towards the end of the first half of the race. You have to cross the road, which is sketchy, especially with 30 guys going over 20mph, but we had a course marshal shepard us across safely, but nearly getting struck by on oncoming car. The first kicker is steep, ending with a nice little gate we all have to crawl through. The broken road turns into fire road, and it's a good short climb before we drop into the neighborhoods on the other side.
The course isn't clearly marked at all. Even having the course loaded onto my Garmin, it's practically useless, but having course knowledge of any sorts will help.
We bomb down some road as our group is now splintered. The feed zone is inconveniently placed at the bottom of the hill, where the first hard left isn't discernible. Luckily we had some locals tell us "They all went that way!". Thanks! If they weren't there to tell use a bunch of us would have gone straight down to the bottom. A couple of my friends made the mistake, costing them at least five minutes or so.
Now were riding through a neighborhood with many offshoot streets and driveways. I had to trust my group because my memory of this section was pretty fuzzy. We round a few steep corners before we slug it out on the halfway point climb. A gruelling five-mile ascent where I'm at a disadvantage gear-wise. Physically I'm well prepared to settle into my climbing legs, but it's hard knowing you could go much quicker with the setups surrounding me. As long as I'm within a minute or so I'll catch them on the ride down, which is steep and loose.
My friend David catches up to me after missing the turn at Cherry St. He's super strong, and paces me up to the top of the climb. Sure enough we bomb down the fire road all the way down to the rideable creek crossing, catching and passing a bunch of guys along our way. I was prepared to take a bit more risk, hoping to open up a gap and catch a group on the way back.
On the other side of the creek is a long gradual climb where I said adios to David, and watched him hammer out of sight. I'm alone at and get to the halfway point knowing exactly where to go, unlike last year where I had to wait a while for someone to show me the way. I pedal along towards the little town up ahead, knowing to stay right and up into the windy streets hugging the right side of the creek. I ride for a few minutes by myself and see from across the river a bunch of guys zipping along, clearly getting the advantage of a smooth road all the way back to Highway 116. Damnit. They clearly haven't ridden the course before, but it's not their fault since this major intersection is clearly unmarked. I ride for another minute, look back, and see a good group of 5 heading my way.
I regroup and we organize. At first I'm just drafting along to conserve energy. My legs are starting to feel the twinges of cramping, but I've been hydrating fairly well and eating every 15 minutes or so. Once we hit the main road back we decided to work together, forming a nice rotating pace line, taking turns at the front as we battled out a slight headwind. No one was about to take a risk and make a break for it, so we cruised our way onto the last flat section of fire road before the long hard climb to the finish. It was me, and five other strong-looking dudes. Justin, who pipped me at the line last year, was in this group, and it was my goal to not let him pull the wool over my eyes, knowing exactly where the finish line was. The only problem was that I didn't know how long it would take us to get to the top. I quickly jump onto his wheel and gently turn the screws on our group.
Within a few minutes our group dissipates, and it's me, Justin and one of his buddies, Matt from Petaluma, working together to see who had the most left in their tanks. Just up ahead I recognize the Lumosity kit of my friend Jeremy, trying to recall if I saw him pass me earlier in the race. I think he missed the turn at the halfway point. I press on and try to stay on Justin's wheel. Not know how much longer the climb would last, only gauging by how many miles we had left I wasn't left with much to go on in an effort to overtake him. My legs are screaming.
Save something for the last 5 miles. They're the worst. Burn a match here, burn a match there, but save at least two for the long climb back to the finish line.
Towards the top there's a mean, steep little pitch, and that does it for me. I crack and let Justin and Matt spin away from me. There were times where I felt like I had just enough to push myself, but I was at my limit at that point, and didn't want to risking getting caught from behind. I steady my effort and focus on being smooth while my heart rate teetered on the edge of red-lining. I catch a few more guys on the climb and see the trees giving way to more blue sky. I'm near the end. I spot two orange cones and a guys slowly making his way towards them. I jump out of my saddle and start slow springing, grimacing in pain as both my legs and forearms start to cramp. I managed to get him at the line, and I'm done. Finishing in three hours and seven minutes, nearly 10 minutes faster than last year. I see a small group at the line, and knew I had done well. The question remained, who else missed the turn, giving them an advantage? I didn't care at that point, as I nearly collapse, gasping for air and coughing like crazy.
I exchange quick stories with the fast guys and wait for all my friends to cross the line. We continue to swap stories as bikes begin to pile up around the edge of the fire road overlooking some amazing views of the rolling hills and ocean afar. The spirit of the event is in full effect. Despite the near misses and wrong turns for the few, we all had a blast. I was up there for a good hour or so, greeting more familiar faces before making our way back down to the car where I forgot there was a food truck. My friends Jeremy and Jon scarfed down some tasty falafel and fries as we continued to swap stories. This is my favorite aspect of racing, the shared experience, knowing we all work hard to do well while having fun in the process.
See you at Old Caz next year. Welcome, 2014 XC race season. I am ready.
- 2014 Specialized Epic Expert World Cup (Size: Medium)
- Front Tire: Specialized Fast Trak Control 29x2.0"
Rear Tire: Specialized Renegade Control 29x1.95"