Race Report: Battle the Bear MTB (Singlespeed)
I opened the car door and walked straight into Flashback City. 10 years. That’s how long it had been since I was in this very same spot, doing my last mountain bike race. On the same orange bike. Different car, but still red with a Thule rack.
As for me, I was quite different. Like my bike that had been converted to a singlespeed, I too felt stripped of all unnecessary components. A bit weathered and worn, but up to the task. Lighter, definitely faster, and maybe even a little – meaner? Maybe it was just the 20 years of aging in the last 10 talking, but I felt worlds away from that person who last raced his mountain bike here. Still very much connected, though.
Enough of that, I was here to race! Where’s my number plate? How much pressure should I run with in the tires? How hard should I go during the warm-up? Why is everyone in brighter/cleaner/tigher jerseys and shorts than I’ve seen in most road races?? I guess the old ebay jersey with the hacked-off sleeves is out.
I registered and set out on my first bit of riding on a true singlespeed bike. I had done a couple of rides on my bike leaving it in a specific gear to get a feel for what it would be like, but had just finished the full-on conversion late last night. A small ride up and down the street in front of my house to make any last-minute adjustments, and here I was at the race. Hoping things would hold together after replacing pedals, shoes, cleats, chainrings, grips, bar ends, converting the cassette into a single, rebuilding the fork, and adding a tensioner. What could possibly go wrong??
The bike felt good during my pre-ride, and I felt pretty good as well. I knew I wouldn’t be competitive, but was getting fired up all the same. I was using this race as a dress rehearsal for my big weekend in Gunnison coming up in two weeks where I will be running the 32 mile Sage Burner trail race on Saturday, and following that up with the 64 mile Growler mountain bike race (singlespeed) on Sunday – a.k.a. The Whole Enchilada.
I had run a total of 42 miles in the 4 days leading up to this race, including a 15 miler yesterday. This would give me a 15 mile run/30 mile bike combo as a perfect half-dose simulation of what was to come.
To further the simulation effect, I was wearing a fully loaded hydration pack with 70 ounces of water, lots of tools, food, tubes, CO2 cartridges, etc. I felt very out of place doing so – even though this is a 30 mile race, it is an extremely fast course and most people were stripped to the bare minimum. I even saw one rider in a skinsuit! I felt like it was best to stick to the plan, though. I needed to do a realistic test of all my gear. Speaking of “gear”, the big decision I had to make was what cog to run with on the back. Again, I opted for my Gunnison setup (18 tooth) rather than what would be best for this course.
Ready to go, then.
They called the pro men to the line, and then staged the singlespeed riders next (10-12 of us). That can’t be right, I thought – as we still had the pro women, and expert men/women lined up behind us.
Everyone took off up the climb and I was left standing behind of row of riders that didn’t go anywhere. Great. They were in the next wave and I thought they were in mine. I had to say a few excuse me’s and work my way through the handlebars to get going. Already 30 yards off the back…
I caught up as we crested the hill and roared onto the singletrack. Wow. This was FAST. I was pedaling crazy circles and barely hanging on. My thumb desperately jamming at the void where my shifter used to be. Oh how I wanted to throw it in the big ring and GO! Then I realized, that wasn’t the point. It’s gonna be a long day. Settle down, relax, spin. Control the effort.
I got in a groove on some sweet, swoopy singletrack and smiled. Hit a jump and vowed to take every one that I saw, no matter how tired. Things got a little frantic as the leaders from the next waves came flying by before I hit the main climb. I was just too spun out to expect anything different, but getting passed by 50 people is never any fun.
I immediately caught back up as we started the climb to the high point of the course, then looked above me on the switchback to see a line of riders nose-to-tail stretching out of sight. This was going to be a challenge. While everyone else had the relative luxury of sitting down and spinning an ‘easy’ gear up the climb, I was standing, practically coming to a complete stop with every pedal revolution, and putting my balancing skills to the test. I even survived a couple of times when guys behind me weren’t paying attention and rammed my back tire, thank you very much.
Finally topping out, my thumb went to work jabbing for the missing shifter again. PEDAL! PEDAL! PEDAL! I shouted in my head as I furiously spun the cranks to maintain contact with the riders ahead. A small bit of relief was had when the grade steepened to the point where pedaling was not needed. It was here that I began to observe with some amusement the lengths I would go to in order to preserve precious momentum. Ahh, momentum. Like Gollum lusting after the Ring, I found myself taking bigger risks and going longer and longer without touching the brakes in pursuit of the cherished propulsion. A geared rider can bail themselves out of any errors by simply shifting and riding away, being on a single means those errors cost energy with compound interest. That’s one of the draws, it keeps you honest.
A few more climbs and then I came through the start/finish area with the thumping music and cheering crowd. A definite lift as riders were now well spread out and it was time to hit another lap.
A cool thing about this race was they used a sharpie marker on your calf to designate your category and/or age group. It was super easy to tell who was who out on the course, and I had a good time giving props to the 50 mile riders that I would occasionally pass. “Good job, 50.” “Good…job……single…huff..puff.” Was the typical exchange. They were usually pretty spent – had to be if I was passing them. I also had plenty of time to think deep thoughts like, why does my left eyebrow sweat 20 times more than my right??
The silence was amazing on the singlespeed. No cable pinging, chain popping, shifter clicking, or gear grinding nonsense. Just the ever so subtle hydraulic hiss of blood rushing into and out of your leg muscles. Your legs are the gears. Cool.
I was finally feeling warmed up and was amazed at how much of a difference even having done just one lap made in my riding and level of effort. I was hitting the best lines, still catching air where I could, and maintaining a steady pace. Coming through the second lap about 20 seconds slower than the first and with a 5 beat lower average heart rate. Perfect.
My fueling was spot-on with no peaks or valleys thanks to First Endurance Liquid Shot. Since I had a pack full of water, I filled a bottle with a 1:1 mixture of LS and water. It was my first time using it in a diluted solution, but it worked perfectly for the more violent effort of a mountain bike race. It was super easy to just take a sip once in a while and keep the fire stoked. Should work out perfectly for Gunnison.
The bike worked flawlessly as I increased my effort to finish strong on the last lap. As I was cresting the big climb on the course, the guy ahead of me pointed down and called out rattlesnake. I looked but only saw grass and dirt blurred together as if opening my eyes under water in a swimming pool. I was sweating just a bit! Luckily it must have just been spectating.
I would lose contact with the riders around me on the flats and then catch up on the climbs. Over and over again. Sometimes cursing my spun out gear, but quick to remember that it was mostly just practice anyway. I spun like the Tasmanian Devil for the last couple of miles in a final attempt to squeeze out any seconds that I could.
Then it was over. 2 hours 19 minutes. 8th out of 10 SS finishers – the bulk of which finished in somewhat of a group in the 2:10-2:12 range. It would have been fun to be in the mix a little bit, but I was super happy to have finished my first singlespeed race in good style. Consistent. Upright, and smiling.
I felt pretty good. Not even all that tired. Probably thanks to the easier and slower gear. Sure I worked hard, but I was happy to see that the whole Gunnison thing might just be possible after all. That’s going to be a whole new ball game, though. Probably 5-6 hours for the run and 8-9 on the bike.
Check out the video I made from my GPS file. It shows all three laps superimposed on one. The red dot is lap 1, yellow lap 2, and green is lap 3. Black line is climbing, orange is flat or descending. You can see green almost catch red at the line!!