For those that may not know, in Alberta, mountain bike racers are divided into ability categories. Everyone begins in Novice (unskilled or unproven), and they upgrade through Sport (skilled but undisciplined), and then through Expert (motivated, disciplined, on-their-way or out-of-their league), to ultimately peak at Elite (sponsored, professional, live on their bike). Essentially, racers earn points by placing in the top 8 of selected racing events. First-place earns a racer 20 points, while 8th place earns only 2 points. It takes 40 points to upgrade from Sport to Expert, and they must be earned in the current season or the previous season. In other words, the points from three seasons ago do not count, only this year and last year.
I began aspiring to upgrade to the Expert ability category in mountain bike racing after my first Sport Race in 1999. Yes, that’s correct; I have been trapped here in Sport for 13 years in a kind of fat-tire purgatory beset upon me as punishment for not training during the winter, and not finding time in the summer to race frequently. I came in to 2012 season with zero points, having had an unmotivated training and racing year in 2011. I was starting from scratch. Now maybe you are thinking that someone with 13 years of racing experience should have learned enough tricks and techniques to give him a racing advantage. Well, sure, I have learned a few things…..for instance I have become more aware that bones break, and more and more I concern myself with the fact that men in their 40s have heart attacks; I have learned that when part of a race course is technical enough that the organizer provides a go-around option, I should probably take the go-around; and I have learned that heavy bikes don’t break as frequently as light bikes, and cost less to repair. Believe me; this knowledge has not made me faster—at least not relative to the youthful daredevil competition riding five thousand dollar bikes. Whatever I have learned that might be a racing advantage is certainly cancelled out by my relative age. Even 13 years ago, I was older than most of the young cyclists I line up with now in the Sport category. Many are recent upgrades from Novice. Twenty-somethings that attack the downhills as if, in fact, bones don’t break, and bikes don’t crash. And they attack right off starting line, as if taking their heart rate from 60 to 215 beats per minute (bpm) in less than 60 seconds poses no risk or discomfort what so ever.
I am pretty sure that if my heart rate has ever gone to 215 bpm, that it was only once, and it was during a foot race against my best friend and rival, Richie Fairholm, in grade 2. The girls in our grade had just voted Richie both the cutest boy in our grade, and also the fastest. I was quick to protest the validity of this declaration, and since I couldn’t think of a more objective way to measure cuteness than to put it to a vote, I focused my arguments on speed, and quickly organized a foot race between Richie Fairholm and myself to objectively measure who was the fastest. I ran like I had never run before. I trounced him irrefutably with the whole class assembled to witness it. “Fine” said the girls of grade two, “but Richie is still the cutest”. That was ok with me, and I went home that afternoon proud of my accomplishment, and quite satisfied that some small wrong had been corrected. The next day, the girls of grade two voted Richie Fairholm to be the fastest boy in our grade, again. I was a big fan of The Peanuts cartoon specials in those days, and it struck me then how much the life of Charlie Brown and my own life had in common. “GOOD GRIEF!” I thought to myself, helplessly. Ever since then, being fast has been important to me, while my faith in democracy and my tolerance of 8-year-old school girls, has remained somewhat strained.
And, so, to the point of this report, I did it. After thirteen years in Sport, I have upgraded to Expert. No, the ABA did not assemble a bunch of 8-year-old girls to put it to a vote; I earned my final 10 points in Sport this weekend, to total 40. It was at the Perogy XC mountain bike race put on by Pedalhead Bicycleworks in Edmonton, and to get my 10 points I had to finish no worst than 4th place against some of the fastest mediocre mountain bikers in Alberta. Those of you who follow my blogs (Mom) may remember that I had a particularly rough day at this race last year. It was hot, and I suffered and came close to quitting. So when the long-range forecast predicted plus 30 °C temperatures for race-day this year, I started drinking (water this time, not beer). I got some advice from Coach Stefan (from Next Stop Kona) who encouraged me to include complex carbohydrates in my waterbottles during the race; and to be double-sure, I also included some orange juice, a spoon full of sugar, and a quarter teaspoon of salt. I coaxed Shari to work for me in the feed zone where she managed two coolers; one full of ice and bottles of my elixir concoction, and the other full of ice and bottles of pure refreshing water for dumping on my head and down my back to keep me cool. I was ready for the heat.
I had a great start, and was the third rider into the single track off the start. I was quickly passed in the feed zone and relegated to fourth. I attacked on the series of three big climbs and regained third, only to be passed at the bottom of the decent by a slew of riders, and relegated down to 8th by about half way through the first lap. There was still some climbing left in the lap though, and by the time I was back through start finish to begin my second lap, I had moved back up to 7th. My first feed came early in the second lap where Shari was vigilant in the feed zone, holding up a choice of my miracle elixir or water. I had not had much time to drink, so my bottle of elixir was still full, I called for the water, but with only one bottle cage, what to do? The feed zone ended with a steep drop where I needed both hands, so I quickly tucked the bottle down the front of my jersey like a busty waitress might do with a 5-dollar tip. Sexy, I know! Then, when I could manage some one-handed cycling, I dumped the sweet cool essence of life over my head, and felt immediately refreshed. Again I attacked on the series of three big climbs, and worked my way into 5th; with 4th (Jason Redfern, Pedalhead) in sight, and 6th place (Brendan Romano, Mud Sweat and Gears) gaining on me.
Back through start/finish and the feed zone for the last time with 6th place about 5 bike-lengths back, Shari was ready with two more bottles but I could see right away that they were both my elixir. I have a water bottle system, mixed liquids in clear bottles, and water in opaque (problem is I never told Shari about the system). As I called for water, she dropped one of the elixir bottles, and picked up a bottle of water—perfect. When I reached her, I dropped the spent bottle from by bottle cage at her feet and in one smooth and practiced motion grabbed the bottle of water from her hand and placed it securely in the cage. Now this is where things became less smooth, and less practiced; as I raised my head to look her in the eyes and smile gratefully, she took the remaining bottle of elixir she was holding, which she thought was water, and sprayed me right in the face. Still pedaling forward, I was momentarily blinded (although gratefully refreshed), I reached up to grab the elixir bottle from her. Intent on her plan to spray me, she was reluctant to let go, and the ensuing brief wrestling match caused me to nearly take out most of the feed zone. By the time I had relived Shari of the bottle and stuffed it down my low-cut cycling blouse to get two hands back on my handlebar, 6th was a half wheel behind me. “Good Grief!” Luckily, the elixir in the face worked to refresh me, and I rode the tight singletrack that came after the feed zone with some enthusiasm, and managed to put a nice 50-meter gap into 6th before the trail widened again. This was to no avail however, because I took the widening trail as an opportunity to dump my bottle of water over my head, discard the empty bottle, and fish out the bottle of elixir that was working its way down out the bottom of my jersey; and though I negotiated this task to completion without loosing any speed, just before my right hand returned to its prudent position on my handlebar, the end of my handlebar caught a small shrub and turned my front wheel sharply 90 degrees to my direction of travel. The laws of physics (objects in motion and that sort of thing) took control immediately and I launched headlong over the handlebars. I managed to get to my feet in time to pull my bike off the trail and let 6th place go by, now 5th. “Good Grief!” This was not going to get me the points I needed to upgrade! Nothing short of a 4th place finish would suffice.
After a quick check to make sure there was no damage to the bike (borrowed from Shari), I jumped back on and got to work. I descended to the foot of the first big climb of the lap taking a few more risks than the previous lap, hoping to catch site of the racer in front of me. At the foot of the climb I could see he was close, and that he was passing the 4th place rider. Again I attacked on the climbs, and emerged at the top in 4th place. The final climbs to finish the last lap were hard, but I knew they would be hard for the racers behind me as well. As the course opened up and flattened out near the start finish, I hammered hard for the line, glancing back over my shoulder to ensure that glory could not be snatched from me. As I crossed the line, I was not raised aloft on the wings of glory or swept away in a wave of pride at my achievement. Instead, I felt the heaviness of well-earned fatigue, and heard a quiet, apathetic voice in my head speak clearly, providing perspective; “Today you set out to reach for the height of your cycling achievement and you did it, you actually did it Charlie Brown…….. you finished fourth.
So what was the big difference between this year and last year? Well, I trained pretty hard last winter, so I might be in better shape, though mostly I have not trained since early May, so maybe not. The big difference was probably having Shari in the feed zone, encouraging me, letting me know where I was at in the race, and hosing me down with a solution of salty fruit juice and complex carbohydrates. I highly recommend it. Full results can be inspected here.