Monday, 30 August 2010

So No Mas

What with Northstar, work and a bit of much needed R&R it's been a good 3 weeks since I last rode cross country. Might not sound like much, but bike fitness is measured in dog years. A couple of weeks out of the granny gear can make a big difference to bike strength. This, I found out in style, at So No Mas this Sunday. Organised by Bike Monkey, the race is a 35 miles (or 50k depending on what side your bread's buttered) romp around Lake Sonoma. 35 miles is a fair old slog. Times it by 8000 feet of climbing and you wanna be in tip top shape to even fill out the registration form. But I was up for it. As was Rosson (riding singlespeed!?!) and Spangles. I spent the whole week leading up to it knocking back electrolytes and looking forward to a full day's shredding in the sun.

Come Sunday, we got up at ridiculous o'clock and drove to the race meet. To quote Spangles, "bike monkey? more like brass monkey!" Yep, it was cold and foggy. Like Howell a few weeks before, the fog began to burn away as we took shape for the mass start. The race website boasted the race was "35 miles of get tough." This was bolstered by the pre-race briefing. The course was to be hilly, steep and unpleasant. Sipping coffee and eating free oatmeal, it was hard to put any tangible meaning to this. Skip ahead a few hours and the Bike Monkey's solemn warnings were echoing around my frazzled head.

We started, en mass, at 8:00am. Contenders were due to finish around the 3.5 hour mark. I reckoned on a solid 5 hour finish time. That, I'd be pleased with. The first couple of miles was a road climb to the trail head. I felt pretty good. Bike felt solid. A mile or so into the dirt however and things weren't right. My heart rate was jacked a good 10bpm over the norm and I was pretty sure I was about to spray my bars and Garmin with oatmeal. Everything felt like a much bigger effort that it should have. Shades of the Tamarancho race, except I had over 30 miles to go. After 8 miles or so, things settled down. My heart rate dropped below the red line and breakfast decided not to hit eject.

For the next 3 or 4 miles I felt pretty strong. I hit a few of the steeper climbs that had others bike hiking - no problem. The descents were also fine. A couple of spills over ruts but nothing major. But it wasn't to be sustained. Sometime around mile 12 my body started to suffer. The familiar stabbing cramp pain took hold of my quads and my energy levels kept hitting zero. The climbs were brutal. Frequent, steep and soul sapping. My legs were getting no chance to recover on the flat or downhill reprieves. It didn't take long before I resorted to frequent rest stops to either try and settle my squirming thighs, neck more sugary goop or just recover mentally before the next assault. The scenery was epic. Quartz lake far below and beautiful blue sky. The singletrack too was fantastic. But I couldn't appreciate it. Each fleeting grasp of flow was met with an immediate series of punishing, anaerobic climbs.

My mind was willing, but my body wasn't. Me and a few other poor souls gradually spent more and more time out of the saddle pushing, than spinning. On more than one occasion I looked down at the granny convinced I was grinding the big ring. No such luck. Each gear shift down made it even more remarkable that Rosson was somewhere far ahead with just the one cog! By the time I hit the late twenties, I was totally done. Each rest longer than the last, each spurt of cranking less than before. Finally, I hit the home stretch. Crossing the finish line I was glad it was over. A hollow victory and, pushing the 6 hour mark, hardly a convincing performance. Spangles did a great job having finished an hour before. Rosson got somewhere around 4:30. Sterling work!

So, I'm not sure what went wrong. Too much food in the morning? not enough the day before?.... Not enough rest? Too long out of the saddle? Probably. Who knows. I'm in two minds about doing the race again next year. Yes, they said it'd be tough. That's the apeal. But it has to be rewarding too. So No Mas left a bitter taste and a sense of set back - especially after Howell where I felt pretty strong. Still, we have Annadel in 2 weeks. A chance to get back some pride. Until then, I'm living like a vicar and hitting some steep dirt to get set.

Garmin info HERE. I think the tree cover clouded the Garmin's little brain as it measured 6000ft of climbing, not 8000ft. Also, you can see how jacked my heart rate was for the first hour. Urgh, not fun.

Monday, 16 August 2010

First of the Northstar

This weekend, it was time to try something a little different - downhill at Northstar. I'd always planned to ease myself gently into a trip like this. First, I was going to do one of the skills courses on offer at the park and then segue into a nice weekend's riding - probably on the Nomad. Well, that plan evaporated when Rosson idly talked of taking a trip up there this Sunday to join his buddies Rich and Derek. No sooner was the seed sown and I was online, booking myself a lift pass, armor, full face helmet and a bad-as-you like Giant Glory! With dual crown forks and 8 inch coils this bike is built for one thing : Going downhill... Fast! With Spangles also onboard, the 3 of us met up at ridiculous o'clock in the am and made our way to the mountains.

We parked up and met with Spangles' mate, In Soo. We then took the gondola to pick up our rigs and hit the slopes. The Giant Glory is an impressive beast. It's clearly built to run on the right side of gravity and take anything mother nature can throw at it. It aint built for anything like climbing though. We decided to warm up on some blue runs. Coupled with the armor and high altitude, riding the Glory up the slight incline to the trail head was no mean feat. I wouldn't be suprised if the double butted frame tubes were reinforced with concrete. Point it downhill though, and suddenly it all makes sense.

Our warm up blue run started with some nice, sweeping burms and technical singletrack. But it ended quickly. With either black diamond routes or green trails (read : fireroad) back to the lifts, we opted for the red pill. Our trail of choice was FlameOut. Nice and technical with big boulder sections and drops, it was a great way to get a feel for the new rides. We rode the chairs back up, and sessioned FlameOut a couple more times. To the casual observer, downhill might seem like the lazy man's version of mountain biking. Have all the reward of the descent, and let the ski lift take care of the ride back up. However, keeping some sort of control over a 3 stone rig, whilst trying to soak up what an 8 inch spring can't - is one hell of a workout. After a few runs it was time for lunch and re-group.

The afternoon was spent riding Northstar's finest roller coaster - Livewire! Irrigated to keep the dirt tacky, this rolling, insanely burmed bobsleigh run has one speed - fast. Taking this at anything other than break-neck speeds simply results in fried trigger fingers. And that's exactly what happened. At run's 2 and 3 I hit the sweet spot where growing confidence met enough endurance to ride fairly hard. I was clearing a few table tops and even had Rosson in my sights for most of the time. But my last couple of runs destroyed what grip I had left in my withered arms. I was beat - but buzzing!

After a full day's riding we returned our gear and headed back to the city. I'd had a couple of spills and scares but without doubt we'd had a fantastic day's shredding. Downhill is a very different aspect to the sport and one I'm keen to keep my hand in. Rich had told me once that it's great for skill's training and he's not wrong. You can't fight gravity. So dealing with speed over sketchy terrain is something you have to get used to very quickly. It also sharpens your wits - like when to bail when you're well out of your depth on a double black diamond run! All skills I'm keen to develop and take to the trails. The next day I woke feeling like I'd been beaten up. My whole body has been punished and one of my feet feels like it probably needs medical attention. The mountain demands a price for all that vertical fun. Still, totally worth it. In fact we're already planning the next Tahoe trip. Livewire withdrawals are hard to fight ;o)

Monday, 9 August 2010

Howell Mountain Challenge

No sooner had the excitement of Downieville mellowed and it was time for another race. This time we were on familiar ground. The Howell Mountain Challenge took place in Angwin, Napa, the same place as the Napa Valley Dirt Classic (see April's blog entry for that one.) The difference this time was the course was set up as a multi loop race (2 x10 mile loops for cat 2) rather than the NVDC's 22 mile circuit. But it took in much of the same trail network. Me and Rosson were hoping for much sunnier, dryer conditions than April's race. But as we drove along a cold, drizzly 101 deja vu started to make itself apparent. Spangles had planned to join us but it turns out last weekend's ride had broken his carbon stumpy frame as well as his face. So he had to bail. Hopefully he'll get himself sorted for the So No Mas race at the end of this month.

I'd decided to change tactics a little on this race and experiment with my setup. At previous race meets I'd taken note of other's little tips and tricks for lighter, seemingly more race friendly kit. Given the Howell' challenge was only 20 miles, with water stops, I decided to ditch the camel sack in favour of a bottle and have a seat mounted pouch for essentials. I even taped Gu to my crossbar for ultimate efficiency (although a steep switchback malfunction ripped this clear and sent it into the wilderness.) I'd previously tested the seat pouch to make sure the gravity dropper still worked fine - which it did. The pouch held a tube, co2 canisters and valve, tyre levers and a cool little multi tool. The water bottle was a trickier problem to solve. I didn't trust using jersey pockets, and the Nomad is too bad-ass to rock bottle cage braze-ons. So in the end (and after much 'net research) I decided on a headset bracket on which to bolt the cage. I figured it wouldn't bias weight when steering and should be pretty stable given it uses the headset thru-bolt.

In truth, I'm not 100% convinced the change in setup improved my performance that much. I didn't get the sense of freedom I expected from not carrying a camel sack. I also felt slightly distracted by the big grey bottle in my peripheral vision. But it all worked fine and survived the few scrapes and crashes that I had. I might use this setup for Annadel, but I'm definitely using the 'sack for So No Mas....

So, the actual race. By the time we'd cleared the hike a bike section and hit the first loop proper, the mist started to burn away leaving a clear blue sky. Conditions were perfect. Dry and dusty but loose enough in sections to test the mettle. The course took in many of the highlights of the Napa Valley Dirt Classic but seemed to be much easier on the climbs. A true XC race, the ascents - although at times steep and challenging - were well spaced out and gave way to some outstanding descents. Nothing too steep, just long and flowing. A good mix of rutted fireroad and sweeping singletrack. One section I remember clearly from the NVDC has rider's hitting a 3 dip roller coaster. I'd previously ridden these - albiet tentatively - on the Orange. Now I wanted to hit them hard with the Nomad! Steep and rocky on the descent and equally so on the immediate climb... I elected to keep in a high gear to prevent my chain coming loose and just crank up the opposing face as far as possible. Great fun - a lot like the flumes at China Camp, but much much wider so you can really let the bike fly and enjoy the grin!

Results have yet to be posted, but according to my Garmin friend, I came in around the 2:15 mark... something I'm extremely pleased with as it shows clear progress over races earlier in the year. There's definite room for improvement, both in terms of skill and fitness, but I'm heading in the right direction. I hooked the Garmin up to it's website to check out the stats. This is a feature I haven't used up to now, but its cool to see the course and how I dealt with it - in terms of pace and heart rate. I rode the Howell' with pretty much the same sort of stats as Downieville. Looking back at Tamarancho its clear something was not quite right that day. Pace was slow and, more significantly, my heart rate was jacked way higher throughout the whole race. Some lessons to be learned and applied for sure. The link to the Howell race Garmin stats is HERE.

Friday, 6 August 2010

'Rancho Night Ride 8510

Went over to Fairfax with Rosson last eve to meet up with Rich and Derek for some nocturnal Tamarancho adventures. I always seem to forget how disconcertingly difficult night riding is until I'm there, wide eyed, trying to negotiate technical dirt with a couple of lamps for guidance. I had one or three topples on the tight switchbacks and rocky sections, as is usually the case with me. It's especially frustrating as the very same sections in daylight are cleaned without drama. Still, its all good skills training. Hanging out with these fellas is also good incentive to ride that little bit harder and faster too, even if that means a few knocks and bumps along the way. And there's always the post ride Brewco session to look forward to :o)

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Downieville 'Ratzied

I'm normally behind the camera so don't get to post many pictures of my fizzog on here. However, Rocky Arroyo Photography were snapping at the Downieville XC race this year and I couldn't help but grab a copy of this one. Look at that beautiful frame contrasting with the searing white rock .... (the Nomad, I mean) ;o)

Monday, 2 August 2010

Pine Mountain

Its been a couple of weeks since I headed out in search or dirt. I did the SF Marathon last week. I've been guilty of putting riding before running. But as it turns out bike fitness can get you through 26.2 miles of pounding pavement. Still, I was itching to get back onto the fat tyres so, this first weekend in August me and Spangles hit Pine Mountain. Seemed fairly straightforward. No tricky singletrack or technicals to contend with. Just a fireroad slog in the Cali' midday sun. We have the So-No-Mas ride on the horizon so wanted a hot, exposed ride with grueling climbs to help us prepare. Pine Mountain took our request and raised it. We were soon to discover she's a vicious beast indeed.

We decided on the classic Pine Mountain loop. This part of Marin is steeped in mountain biking lore. It's where the pioneers of the sport first realised that bikes + dirt trails = fun! Those early shred enthusiasts clearly liked the rough stuff. The loop is fairly short at just over 13 miles but you hit a lot of steep, rocky climbing. Its so loose under foot that a couple of particularly technical sections have earned the nickname "The Bitches." But this was ok by us. This is what we came for. The descents were pretty much more of the same - steep and loose. There's no single track here, its all fireroad. But its fast, sweeping and, in one memorable section, a total roller coaster. This was fun!

Once we hit the San Geronimo trail it was time for another beastly climb. Both me and Spangles are getting fairly strong at the climbing but the heat - and maybe residual marathon fatigue - took its toll on me. It wasn't long before Jase pulled ahead and out of sight. The next time I was to see him is an image I won't forget in a hurry. At around the 8 mile mark the trail gives way to a fairly steep, but insanely rocky descent. Big baby head rocks constantly shifting under the Nomad's tread. The long travel and slack head angle soaked up any nerves and left me enjoying the ride. Forcing myself to keep my eyes ahead and let body and bike deal with the immediate vicinity, I spotted Spangles waiting patiently halfway down the trail. "That's a weird place for him to let me catch up, his bike is parked all funny, man this suspension is plush, that rock looks like it'll give me some decent air, hey Jase what's occurri.... HOLY SH*T!"

"Ere mate, do you have your first aid handy?".....

Luckily, I did. And the poor fecker needed it. Standing, dazed and wild eyed, staring through a T-zone caked in bright red ooze. Moments before, on his much lighter S-Works Stumpy, Jase had buckarood himself, orbit first, into one of Pine Mountain's finest skull crushing rocks. We both kept calm and went through all the proper procedures ; assess damage, clean the wound, apply dressing, take a picture for Facebook... Ah, exposure not quite right, take another picture... Now try one with a thumbs up... Smile! Within 10 minutes he was back in the saddle claiming "ah, its only a face..". What a trooper!

A few miles left to go and then we were back to the car. Leaving Pine Mountain with some much deserved respect and a little DNA. After a couple of hours in A&E Jason was right as rain. Plus he'll have a scar to prove his mountain biking stripes. A couple of lesson's well learned though. We're planning a Northstar trip in the very near future. Suddenly those nice full face helmets don't seem overly extreme after all..