California Enduro Series MidTour Update: A Beginner’s First Mountain Bike Racing Season

This year, I am racing my first season of the California Enduro Series, or CES.  After years of riding, I am finally dipping my toes in the world of mountain bike racing.  I did the Sea Otter Classic enduro races the last few years, and the Santa Cruz Old Cabin Classic as my first races.  This year I committed to doing seven races: the 2017 Sea Otter (see previous blog post Flow of A Ride: Sea Otter Classic 2017), and six of the eight CES races.  I’ve been learning lots of valuable lessons along the way, and committing to the series has certainly changed the way I’m riding in my free time these days.  Now that I’m half-way through the series, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect upon my progress thus far.

CES Round 1: Mammoth Bar: May 6, 2017

On Saturday, May 6, the series kicked off at the Mammoth Bar OHV area near Auburn, California.  To get a sense of the race, watch this short Video Here.  

Pre-riding a course seems like an obvious thing to do before racing it.  I had rented a car on Friday, leaving work at 2:30 p.m. for Auburn.  Silly me.  The Bay Area traffic has become insufferable at certain times of day, proving to be the case.  I sat in line for the 680 North onramp from Mission Boulevard in Fremont for 25 minutes, moving literally about 10 feet, all the while watching SigAlert get redder and redder as the minutes crept on.  It would probably have taken me about six hours to get to Auburn with the traffic that lay ahead.  I decided then that I would turn around and go back home, forfeiting my opportunity to preride the course, but saving my attitude and happiness.  I was back home to Ben Lomond in less than an hour, and riding my bike that evening.  Of all the things in life that really bother me, which I’d like to think of as very few, traffic nears the top of that list.  In hindsight, I should’ve taken the day off of work and driven up in the morning when the roads were clear.  

Lesson #1 learned on this tour: go up the day before (or sooner) to preride the course whenever possible!  

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, pouring my coffee and heading out by 4:45.  At that time of day, traffic is virtually non-existent.  As much as I hate waking up early, I admit I love this early hour for road travel.  I made it up to Auburn in a few hours, but got a tiny bit lost finding the Mammoth Bar OHV Trailhead where the race was due to start.  My GoogleMaps directed me to some park headquarters office a few miles down the road, so I hied it back to the actual start after calling my husband for some guidance, who was able to quickly look online at home versus me waiting for spotty mobile data to load on my phone.  By the time I found the trailhead, all of the racers were lining up at the start of Stage 1.  I parked my car, kitted up as quickly as I could, and set out up the steep, paved hill I’d just driven down to the start of the first stage.  

Upon my arrival, I was the last of a handful of Beginner Women, my racing category, lining up to start in 30-second intervals.  I exchanged a few brief hellos with the women, who seemed more welcoming and cool than my admittedly stereotypical presumption that most racers have some level of attitude: that in-your-face, I’m-better-than-you-and-I-know-it presence I’ve seen among some riders on the trail.  Perhaps this is just a misperception on my part, judging by how nice these girls were.  There were 10 of us total, and I went last.  The first stage was pedaly and relatively flattish, meandering up and down crumbled metamorphic rocks.  I passed one girl, and finished just behind another.  I felt pretty good for my first run in a new place.  

The Enduro racing format is based upon your cumulative Stage times, so once you finish a timed stage (you wear a computer chip to log your runs), you can relax a little on the untimed transfer stages in between.  I climbed what I heard others begrudgingly called the Mile of Terror, or something like that; it was essentially a relentless climb up a fireroad, which many people were pushing their bikes up.  I enjoy a good climb, so climbed that fireroad all the way up to the top without stopping.  Although it felt good to pass people on the way up (“They should have a category for fastest to the top!” I silently mused), it didn’t help me in the long-run: my Stage 2 start time wasn’t for two more hours.  2 hours to kill sitting around, watching the Pro’s, Experts, Sport, and Beginner Men’s categories all go before us.  There were water jugs and port-a-potties, and about a couple hundred riders waiting around in various groups.  People shared the 411 on their gear; debates about whether 27.5” or 29” tires were better for the course carried on.  A group of energetic teenage boys jeered each other playfully, poking fun and psyching themselves up.  One of them looked very familiar: it was my former student from the sixth grade, Conor!  Always a nice kid and a great athlete, I was happy to see him here at the race.  

“Miss Craig!” he recognized me.  I still love hearing my maiden name, seeing as how it’s barely been two years since I’ve been Mrs. Deetz.

We said “hi” and chatted about the race before I went down to a viewing area alongside the trail.  About thirty or so people were lined up along a drop in the trail, and the riders were coming through on the verge of control every half minute or so.  We all cringed as a few of them lost control and flew over their handlebars, eating dirt before quickly getting up and continuing along the course.  Lesson #2: If you fall but you can still ride, by all means get up and keep going.  Bruises, cuts, and scrapes can all be cleaned up, iced, and elevated later.  Surely you’ll know if you’re too hurt to keep on riding.  I’ve had a few minor falls in races now, and each time I hurried back onto my bike and kept going, losing ten seconds or less per time.  The end-goal would be not to fall at all during a race, of course.  But that’s simply not the reality for most riders, professional or beginner, I’m learning.

By the time the second stage was due to start, I was hungry, tired, and my muscles were cold and tight.  I’d been talking with the girls in my group, relaxing as we all agreed to have ghost riders for the rest of the race, since we were the last to go.  A “ghost rider” adds an extra 30-seconds behind you, so instead of the next racer starting 30-seconds behind you, they start one-minute later.  It reduces the chance of them catching up to you, which, for many of us beginners, can be a disconcerting feeling.  Being passed can be nerve-wracking.  You hear the buzz of the cassette coming toward you like a dragonfly; you immediately look for a safe place to quickly pull off the trail and let the approacher pass.  However, there aren’t always convenient places to do so, and it can be tricky to pass.  The few times I’ve been passed, I had good places to pull over, and clearly communicated that with the incoming rider, allowing them to flow past me without slowing down.  One of the things I get nervous about is interrupting someone’s flow by bogging on a pass.  So taking a ghost-rider is a great way to reduce that chance.  

The second, third, and fourth stages of the race all flowed like butter.  Despite being new to the trails, I felt at home on the style of mountainous terrain.  I really enjoyed the shale rock, dense yet crumbly, finely ground to a silt in the depths of trail corners.  The last stage #4 was the most fun: a flow-trail of well-banked berms and turns through oak woodland, finishing down at the race headquarters, where the smell of barbeque beckoned us from the hilltop.  

After finishing the race, I felt like I’d flown through it.  

“I think I might’ve won,” I thought to myself.  I had some lunch and hung around with people after the race before they announced they didn’t have it together to have a Podium awards ceremony that evening; I wouldn’t get to find out how I placed or if I won.  Around 4:45 that afternoon, I got in the car and headed home, feeling happy with how the day went.  

When I got home and saw Ron, I was telling him how the race went and how I felt like I might’ve actually won.  “By a minute and twenty-nine seconds?” he asked (he’d gone online and seen the results, clearly).  That’s when I knew: I had won first place!  Not only had I gotten first in my Beginner Women’s category, but I also would’ve placed first in the Sport 35+ category above that.  I jumped around my living room emphatically celebrating, pumped up like I’d won money or something.  This was my first time winning any kind of official race, and it felt amazing.  Finally!

After winning that race, I signed up for the rest of the series.  From that point on, I was committed.

Mammoth Bar 3Mammoth Bar 2

Mammoth Bar 1
480 is #1!

 

CES Round 2: Toro Park: May 27, 2017

Watch the Video Recap Here to get a sense of this course.

Toro Park is part of Fort Ord National Monument near Salinas, California.  I’ve ridden the trails of Fort Ord several times; the Sea Otter Classic is held across the park closer to Monterey.  These trails are notoriously sandy: loose, beach sand style pits sneak up on you and trap you; slide-outs on the corners are almost unavoidable.  Sand is not my favorite soil type to ride on.  The trails I ride in Santa Cruz are mostly a nice loam (clay, sand, and humus blend, heavy on the humus with all the redwood forest duff).  The clays compact and make the trails tacky and trustworthy. Sand, on the other hand, keeps you on your toes; you can’t fully relax riding in it, or you’ll likely fall (like I have, many times).  I’ve been riding a place called Bear Mountain near my house which is known for its sandy trails just to get better on the sand; it’s helped, but I’ve still got some work to do.  

I managed to pre-ride half of the course the Friday before the race; Ron (my husband) and I went down after work and rode stages 2 and 3 (there were 4 total stages).  

On race day, I showed up nearly late, again.  Lesson #3: Give yourself plenty of time to get ready for your race.  I hurried up to the start of Stage 1, and had a small slide-out in a sandpit.  I was fine, but my left elbow was literally sandburned.  I kept going, but was humbled by that fall from there on out.  I was more timid in my approaches, although I did get a stage win on Stage #2.  I finished the race feeling like I could’ve gone a bit faster, especially on the last stage, which was a pedaly surprise to me.  

I placed third in this race.  Although it was nice to place so high out of 16 women, it didn’t feel as good as winning first.  I admit I was a tiny bit disappointed.  But I only had myself to blame: I lived an hour away, but how much had I pre-ridden the course?  Just once, and only half the course.  Sand may not be my home in terms of dirt, but there’s only one way to get better at something.  Again: pre-ride whenever possible!

ToroPark1

CES Round 4: China Peak: July 1, 2017

Check out this video of the action: China Peak Recap

Of all the stops on the tour, China Peak loomed like a fogbank.  Stories of untrustworthy, loose rubble, and awful crashes sprinkled my narrative.  I’d never been there before, but heard it was one of the gnarlier stops on the CES tour.  Everyone from the pros to the beginners seemed to have a horror story to share about falling there, and on race-day, arm-slings, bloody clothes, and tales of flying over the bars were all the buzz.  Such a comforting way to begin a race somewhere new!  

I’d planned to drive up on Friday 6/30 to preride the course.  But snag after snag held me up at home, starting with snoozing my alarm at 6:30 a.m.  Slept in til 9:00; woke up to my back tire leaking air; 4th of July holiday weekend traffic was building up.  I basically blew my chance to get up early and preride.  The worst part was I would have to figure up how to make that four hour drive by 7:30 a.m. the next morning…

I woke up like a zombie at 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning; poured my coffee, jumped in the car.  No one was on the road, and I made it to China Peak in only 3.5 hours!  Epic time. Got my race-plates and wrist chip at check-in; attended the Racer Meeting at 7:45.  It was already hot and sunny, and the altitude of 7,000’ at the base of the mountain was reminding me to down more water.  Hydration is always one of my top priorities.  Water, water, water…just like a fish.

I had time to take a short one-hour power nap in the back of my Outback.  This helped recharge me for the race.  Our start time was 10:45 a.m., and at about 10:00 a.m. I loaded my bike onto the chairlift to get to the top of Stage 1 (this was the only stage of the race where we’d get to ride the lift).  I met some cool girls at the top of the stage who’d preridden (smartly so) the day before.  I got some trail beta from them: watch the deep, silty corners that can grab you; stay right on the rock garden section about half-way down; look out for the deep mudpits and board bridge at the bottom.  I had watched several YouTube videos of the race in the week prior, and felt intimidated by what I’d seen, and now what I was hearing from the girls.  I really felt like a dumb-ass in this moment for not making it up to preride.  Especially when I read it on the China Peak recap: “China Peak is not a place to ride blind”.  Duh.  But it was too late.

I made it down Stage 1 with relatively good flow and grace for being blind on it.  No falls or close calls.  The dirt surely was loose and kept me far back on my bike, but so far, so good.  Stage 2 was a bit harder, but I felt more comfortable on the terrain by this point. Upon finishing the second lap, the climb up to Stage 3 presented itself like a laughing clown: “Haha, all you mountain bikers who think you’re in such great shape!  See how you do against my wall of a crumbly climb in this heat, at this altitude!”  I’d heard it was a tough climb, and it proved so right away.  People were pushing their bikes up the steepest sections (myself included); the little amounts of shade that spotted the trail were occupied by weary, sweaty riders trying to regain their composure.  

By the time I made it to the top, I was definitely feeling exhausted from my alpine start and long morning.  I felt like I could take a nap.  I sat for about 20 minutes in a shady spot, eyes closed every now and then, to just really unplug and rest.  This might’ve been the wrong move, however.  By the time I lined up for my last lap at the top of Stage 3, I felt too relaxed, tired, and hungry: all I could think of was food waiting for me at the bottom of the mountain.  To add to my feeling of being underprepared, riders started telling me about the lap: it was the hardest lap of our race (mind you the Pro’s and Experts also road a 4th and 5th stage, which were even harder), and lots of people had crash stories from a particularly challenging rock garden section.  Awesome.  All I could do was try it and do so within my limits; I didn’t want to lose control and crash.  

I started Stage 3 with loose, tight turns, and about halfway down the mountain, the granite started to appear.  Entering the rock garden, I thought to myself, “Keep right”.  I was far left, however.  There was a crowd of people lined up alongside the trail watching and cheering, which can be distracting.  I lost my flow and grace and took a little fall here, nothing bad but enough to lose about 10 seconds.  Quickly got back on the bike to keep going, but as anyone knows who’s fallen, it’s sometimes harder to get going again once you’ve lost that flow.  Sure enough, I took a small fall again just a few feet later.  Argh!  Another 10 seconds lost of recombobulating myself.  Surprisingly, I navigated the rest of that rock garden with some poise, actually taking a graceful line down one of the sketchiest sections.  Some redemption for my falls at the top.  There was a huge boulder at the end which you had to ride straight over the top of, or risk falling down the side of if you weren’t careful.  Cut over that like a waterski on water, nothing slowing me down.  Kept on until the finish of the stage a few minutes later, where I happily rested with some food and water among the finishers.  

I placed #2 in this race, not bad for riding it blind on little sleep.  I stuck around for the podium awards for my first time, and got to stand up there with my fellow Beginner Women to get our awards.  I was happy with my results, and contentedly exhausted.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of being done with a race.  I think it might be one of the best feelings around.  Before a race, there is so much anticipation.  Not quite anxiety-inducing, but enough to keep you up thinking about all the different variables (What’s the dirt like?  What kind of tire pressure would be best?  I hope I do well!).  There is so much preparation: booking hotels or campsites; planning the drive; packing up the car; bringing back-up supplies just in case; mentally making sure you’re feeling confident, calm, and in charge.  So by the time the race is actually done, that relief is a huge reward.  It just feels so good to finish something you started!  Especially something hard.

ChinaPeak2

ChinaPeak1
After the race
ChinaPeak3
Podium

As I reflect upon my race progress halfway through the CES, I’m definitely learning a lot on the way.  Not just practical lessons (like the importance of preriding a course), but emotional, mental, and physical lessons as well.  The obligation of having to do something?  I admit it’s made me rebel subconsciously; I find myself making excuses here and there for not riding.  When I’m supposed to do something, I have a tendency to rebel against it, which is funny, because I’m the only one telling myself I’m supposed to!  It’s not like anyone’s making me do these races.  I find my old rebellious ways coming back, and I have to laugh at myself; more importantly, laugh and then get back on the bike.  I’ve had to remind myself that regardless of how I place in these races, I love riding, and that’s really all that should matter.  Yet adding in the element of race-training has definitely changed my rides a bit.  I work harder; I try to climb faster.  Tightroping between your top speed and staying in control is a constant balancing act for any rider. Surely, speed is important for winning a race.  But it’s nothing without the control and grace to get you to the bottom in one piece.  

I am not overly concerned about being the “best” rider out here.  My main challenge with racing at the moment is purely mental: how can I tune out the background noise and distractions?  How can I bring my A-game to any venue, anywhere, in any conditions, and still demonstrate flow and grace?  How can I focus on riding my best, despite how my competitors are riding?  Learning to just stay in my zone is one of my main goals during this competition.  

Occasionally I wish I’d gotten into mountain bike racing at a younger age.  Looking at the U-18 groups of teens, and I can see myself among those boisterous, youthful riders.  I don’t spend a lot of time regretting things that can’t be changed in the past, but do sometimes wonder where I’d be if I’d started this journey at a younger age instead of 36 years old.  I suppose the same could be said about other hobbies and interests.  But at least I am trying now.

I currently rank #2 overall in the Beginner Women category, and would love to finish in the top 3 by the end of the series.  Here’s hoping!   Of course, I would love to “prove” myself competitively.  Winners are determined by taking your top 6 race results (out of the 8 total races).  I have three more stops on the tour: Round 5: Big Bear “Crafts & Cranks” Enduro, Round 6: NorthStar, and Round 7: Kamikaze Bike Games in Mammoth.  Until next time…back out to the trails!

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