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written by Elden Nelson
What do you call a road trip when nobody will go with you? The fact that I'm asking that question should be enough to tip you off that last September I couldn't persuade a single riding buddy to come with me and race the inaugural Brian Head Epic 100, a (naturally enough) 100-mile mountain bike race put on by Team Big Bear in (again, naturally enough) Brian Head, Utah.
My friends had their reasons for not going, most stemming from one of three facts:
1. It had been raining in Utah for a couple of weeks; a mountain century in the mud sounded like as much fun as affixing jumper cables to your nipples.
2. Brian Head is a way-up-there ski resort on a steep mountain. When you're not descending very fast, you're climbing very slow.
3. I am an idiot for wanting to do a 100 mile race virtually nobody will attend.
My arguments, variations of "Come on, it'll be fun," "This'll be a good test of how strong we really are," and "I'm not that big an idiot," fell on deaf ears. Bunch of damn crybabies.
So the day before the race, I climbed into my car and drove to Brian Head, alone. The whole trip, the only time it stopped raining was when it hailed. The only good thing about the trip so far was that--since I was alone--I could listen to my 80's music without being ridiculed. Hey, break out the Duran Duran; it's sing-along time.
When I pulled up to the ski lodge for check in and registration, I ran into Kenny, a local endurance jock here for the race. He was looking at the sky, and he was not smiling. "This," he said, "sucks." I could see his point. It was still raining and there was a half-inch of slush on the ground. Not exactly great epic racing conditions.
"I'm not doing this," said Kenny. "I've asked for my money back; I'm going to go ride Gooseberry (an outstanding ride outside of St. George, UT) tomorow instead. You can come along if you want." Now, Kenny can clean my clock on any endurance event--if he didn't think the course was do-able, what chance did I have? I should just go do the fun ride.
"Nah, I think I'll give the race a try anyway," I said. Have I mentioned that I am an idiot?
The Night Before
Any 100-mile mountain bike race is going to draw comparisons with the Leadville 100, the most famous mountain century of them all. And the Brian Head Epic 100 is clearly patterned on the Leadville race, right down to the way it kicks off the night before with a pasta dinner. There was a big difference, though: at the Leadville Trail 100, there are hundreds and hundreds of people; at the Brian Head feed, on the other hand there were just about forty, twenty of us there to do the actual race. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who had trouble convincing others to come.
If you're a big-shot racer, the small group at this race probably would have bothered you--where's the competition? For me, it just meant my first--and probably only--chance at a top-twenty finish.
I sat myself down across from a guy from Boulder. His name was Eddie, and he was planning to do the race on his Bianchi BOSS--a single speed, for the love of Mike. "Have you taken a look at the elevation profile?" I asked. This ride is straight up and down, and I figured I wouldn't want to be around Eddie when his knees exploded, sending cartilage shrapnel in every direction.
Eddie did not seem concerned.
"Well, do you have any goals for a finishing time?" I asked. You see, I wasn't really interested in how Eddie hoped to do in the race; I just wanted him to ask me how I hoped to do, so I could tell him that I hoped to finish in under nine hours, thereby earning the Silver Chalice award (another nod to the Leadville 100, where those who finish under nine hours win a huge rodeo belt buckle). "No, not really," said Eddie. "I just want to get across the finish line." I mentally crossed Eddie off my list of people to worry about beating me.
After dinner, Tom, one of the Team Big Bear guys, stood up and told us what we needed to know: "Expect it to be windy and cold. There's considerable mud on the course. We plan, though, to do the race no matter what. See you tomorrow at 7:00am."
Big Up, Big Down
During the night, a strong wind kicked up, magically blowing all the clouds away. Saturday dawned bright and clear...and windy as hell. As soon as I stepped out of the hotel, I realized I had made some dressing errors and quickly pulled a pair of tights over my knickers and a long sleeve jersey over my short sleeve jersey and arm warmers. That's all I had brought, so it'd have to do.
One cool thing about having only twenty or so people in a race is that the event can be downright homey. As the racers stood around the start/finish line, Tom did a headcount and took a few group photos. 7:00 came and went, but not everyone was there, so we waited a few minutes. Tom then shouted "Go!" (hey, a starting gun would've awakened the locals) and we rolled off.
The first three miles of the race were on some steep-ass pavement. Wanting to generate some body heat before I went hypothermic, I dialed up a big gear and started mashing hard. This had an amazing effect: for the first time in my racing life, I was up front. Yes, I led the race...for a whopping 45 seconds. Then the guys who are fast for real flew by, leaving me in fourth or fifth place.
Next, we turned on to a wide dirt road...and kept climbing. The wind was blowing hard, but I was feeling good, thinking about the fact that climbing the first five miles of this modified-out-and-back course meant that the final five miles would be descending.
Riding on this wide road, a few of us took a moment to get to introduce ourselves. One guy essentially said "Hi, I'm Rich and I do adventure races," and then proceeded to hide from the wind by sucking my rear wheel.
Now, I'm all for working together on these big rides; it improves everybody's chances of finishing. So, after I had pulled for a minute or so, I veered to the left, Rich's cue to continue on straight and let me tuck in behind him for a minute. No dice. Rich stayed right behind me. OK, maybe he just didn't get the hint. I pulled a minute more and veered right. Again, he stayed on my wheel.
The wind was getting fierce now, and I was tired of doing all the work. I turned around and said, "Hey, be a pal; take a turn pulling." Rich grunted and sucked wheel.
And so it went until we reached Brian Head Peak, where the wind was so fierce and cold it nearly brought me to a dead stop. Five miles into the race, and I was cooked. We then turned around and headed downhill, with the wind. Rich took this opportunity to pass me. I daresay I didn't think many nice thoughts about Rich the rest of the day. >
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