Big Basin Redwoods State Park, in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, is famous for its old-growth redwood trees. As the oldest state park established in 1902, it has drawn visitors from around the world to stand beneath its towering, majestic giants. Some redwoods are over 2,000 years old, and command the forest floor like marshals on patrol. They certainly command awe and respect.
Big Basin is also known for its 13-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail, which meanders from the park headquarters down to Waddell Beach at Rancho Del Oso. I backpacked this trail about fifteen years ago, sleeping overnight midway; it was a gorgeous, surprisingly remote adventure. Though we’re so close to Santa Cruz and “civilization”, it feels starkly desolate out here. Wildlife abounds, and inspiring views surround you.
While not known particularly for its mountain biking, Big Basin offers a network of fireroads for riding upon; single-track trails are off-limits. Today, I decided to try my first mountain bike ride here on the Big Basin Loop, a 13-mile loop climbing about 1,700′ in elevation. Only about a 25-minute drive from my house, it is close enough I should come here more often! This year, the first ever Old Growth Classic will take place here on August 25; if I weren’t already racing the CES at Northstar that day, I would be doing it.
Starting off at the Park Headquarters, you climb up Gazos Creek Fireroad for nearly seven miles. There are some downhill, flowy segments on this trail, and then it returns to climbing. At the end of this trail, turn right on Johansen Fireroad, which skirts a very unique mountain property with a treehouse and tepees. This is the steepest climbing on the loop.
After a few miles, you’ll reach Ocean View Summit at 1,685′; as the name implies, it’s a sweeping view West over the Pacific Ocean. Due to all the wildfires burning across the state, it was especially smoky today, and you can see it in the video. I also felt it in my lungs.
Middle Ridge Road was the funnest downhill of the ride, dropping quickly from the summit back to park headquarters over a mix of sandstone and redwood duff. Though nothing on this ride was exceptionally challenging, the gorgeous scenery and flowy fireroads provided enough motivation to make the climbing worth it. It was a good workout, about two and a half hours riding time.
I finished with a short walk through the Redwood Loop back at the Park Headquarters, appreciating the grand redwoods we are so lucky weren’t logged back in the 1800’s. Though it may feel like “wilderness” out here, it’s easy to see how much this land was ravaged for its valuable resources only a century or so ago. I can only imagine how this forest must’ve looked when it was full of these beautiful, old-growth giants.
Enjoy this video summary of the ride, or better yet, go try it yourself! You won’t regret it.
Here’s a video of the mountain biking trails Airborn, Sick & Twisted, and Magic Carpet Ride in the upper UCSC area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. We begin with Airborn, a trail known for its steep, loose descent over redwood roots. This time of year it is especially dry, and today I noticed the braking bumps had grown at least a few inches since my last run down it. But it’s still good fun, of course!
Flowing down steep hillsides like this one requires a balance of keeping momentum while not sliding out of control. Though I try to mostly use my rear brake on trails like this, your front brake provides that stopping power that you need to slow down. It becomes a controlled slide, at times. Keeping your weight back, and your center of gravity balanced over the bike, helps keep you from falling forward over the bars as you hold on and just slide down that slope until it lets up. It’s fun to ride on this edge of composure and chaos.
I focus on keeping my four points of contact firmly intact: hands committed to the bars, feet solid on my pedals. Maintaining these points of contact, while balancing your center like a gyroscope, helps absorb some of the bouncing and bumping that is inevitable on steep trails with lots of features. Dynamic, split-second reflexes, are part of the fun of this dance. Mountain biking is a lot like dancing; your bike is your partner, and you must keep a firm, constant frame with each other in order to flow with grace across the dancefloor of the forest floor. You must stay completely aware; the word present is an understatement. It can become meditative, despite the speed and stimuli involved.
Sick & Twisted is a short trail that feeds into one of my longtime favorite trails, Magic Carpet Ride. I love this area with all my heart, so much I often say “Thank you” at least once during my ride. Thank you for my legs and body to ride out here; thank you for the awesome, natural beauty that bathes me in its gentle, scattered sunlight. Gratitude is inspired from doing what you love, where you want to be. For me, that’s flowing with grace on my bike among beautiful, natural places. Blessed with another day to do just that!
Here’s a video of today’s ride, my favorite regular route. I added some captions to highlight some unique areas of the trails I’m grateful to call home. It’s about 20 miles and takes about 2 hours, starting at Highway 9 and Pipeline Road through Henry Cowell State Park, and continuing up 17 Turns to Mailboxes for the first downhill. Then, it’s a fireroad climb back up the mountain via Long Meadow in Wilder Ranch to Twin Gates; on to Sweetness, the second downhill. The warm-up and cool-down through Henry Cowell are perfect for this ride, and I’m super appreciative I can ride these trails with just a short drive from my house in Ben Lomond!
The birds and wildlife are always a huge motivator to do anything outside around here; I’ve seen a mountain lion on Mailboxes trail before. Today I saw several baby lizards, only about an inch long, which was a reminder to watch out for hatching reptiles on these hot, late-Summer days. Having access to this stunning outdoor escape is one of the main reasons I moved to Santa Cruz in the first place, almost twenty years ago. These mountains feel like home, and though I’ve ridden these trails hundreds of times, they never get old – endless fun!
Summertime rides like these set the stage for content, happy evenings; under balmy conditions, a symphony of insects and a full moon fill the sky and the senses. I savor the Summer! I am beyond thankful for this time off, and for the freedom, flow, and grace it brings. Time is the biggest gift of all, and I don’t take it for granted. As a teacher, I know exactly when my time off is, and take advantage of it while I can. August 20 will be here before I know it.
Enjoy your Summer, too; go ride your bike! It doesn’t matter what you’re riding, it’s that you’re riding – and with a smile on your face.
Ron and I had an awesome time mountain biking at Northstar for a couple of days, followed by Downieville the next; I filmed four of our rides from Northstar, shown below. The Sierra Nevadas are breathtaking this time of year, with pops of color jumping off the landscape from bursting wildflowers, and long days to fill with fun activities to your heart’s content. I’m going to let the pictures and videos do the talking here, but let’s just sum it up with one word: heaven!
Summer is in full swing, and mountain bike racing season is too! With the Enduro season almost half-way through, I’m reflecting on the races I’ve done so far. Last year was my first year doing the California Enduro Series, and I won the Beginner category. This year I moved up to Sport 35+, and am halfway through the series competition. Here’s a recap of the first five races of the season so far, including a couple of others:
This was my fourth year doing the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California. The largest bike festival of its kind, it draws thousands of visitors over a 4-day span at Laguna Seca Raceway near Fort Ord. I had just gotten my new Santa Cruz Hightower LT a week before, and was excited to put it to the test in this race. The course is sandy and flowy, with four stages: a downhill course, two trail stages, and a dual-slalom course at the end.
Though I was familiar with the course, I hadn’t really adapted to my bike’s new geometry yet; I was trained from my old Specialized Camber, which was more of a cross-country bike, to lean way back over my back tire on descents. On my new bike, however, I didn’t have to lean so far back anymore, and kept getting razzed by my back tire (always a surprising sensation). This proved both humorous and startling on Stage 1, the Downhill Course. I hit one of the first few jumps with good speed, but I was too far back over my back tire. I got slapped by my back tire on the landing, which nearly propelled me forward over the bars. Amid a crowd of spectators, I felt my pants get caught on my seat as I rode out the landing.
Regaining control, I heard someone yell, “Nice job! Now pull up your pants!”.
My pants? They were pulled down almost to my knees! Yes, I got pantsed at the Sea Otter. Luckily, my bikeshorts were still on tight. I awkwardly tried to pull them up as I kept riding, which was awesomely captured by a waiting photographer. Note how much I am smiling in the pictures because I am laughing my butt off at being pantsed in front of all those people. I finished the rest of that course with my pants in disarray, but with levity and gratitude that at least I didn’t crash off that jump.
This race was all about proving to myself that I could ride 29.3 miles at race-pace without a break; it was my second ever cross-country race. Read all about it in my previous blog post Old Cabin Classic 2018. Let’s just sum it up as: “Check that box and done!”.
This was the “local” race for me of the California Enduro Series (CES). Toro Park is only about an hour from my house, and its sandy conditions mimic a Santa Cruz riding spot, Bear Mountain, where I go to improve my sand skills. Sand was initially a challenging, intimidating medium for me to ride, but over the years, I’ve grown a lot in my ability to ride it.
I prerode the course a couple of days before the race, which really helped with my confidence going into the race. The best part about the preride? On my last lap, climbing up a punishing fireroad, a race marshal drove up in his truck with a small crew of guys.
“Want a lift?” he offered.
“Hell YEAH!” I emphatically replied. I hopped into the back of his truck with my bike, and enjoyed a beautiful drive up that steep climb to the top. Now that’s how we get the race weekend started!
On the actual race day, it was cold and cloudy, only about 55℉. I am racing this year with a new team, MTB Experience, full of cool girls who are racing the CES this year. Our encouragement and excitement feed off each other, and definitely added to the positive vibe of this race. It was also wonderful to meet up with all of the awesome people that come out to these races. The community of people is one of the main reasons I race at all.
I felt on top of my game during this race – no mechanicals, no crashes or hiccups, and I felt fast. Having ridden here a few times now, I also felt like I knew what to expect.
I placed first in this race for the Women’s Sport 35+ category, with an overall time of 15:55, shaving a full minute and a half off last year’s time. This was a fun race and a great kick-off to the CES season! Check out a video summary of the course here.
7/10 of a second. 70% of a second. A mere .7 seconds!
However you annotate it mathematically, let seven-tenths of a second be the theme of this race!
I went into Mammoth Bar with a plan. I was going to preride on Friday, the day before the race, spend the night at my Auntie Christie’s house in Roseville, and then race Saturday. All was going to plan, except it was hot as hell on Friday when I showed up to preride. Duh. No wonder all the practice rides started at 9 a.m.! Showing up at 3 p.m., it was nearly 100℉ and miserable. I prerode only three out of the four stages, and went for a swim in the American River afterwards to cool off.
I spent a wonderful evening at my Aunt’s house with her husband Lee at their beautiful home in Roseville, about 20 minutes from Auburn. We had a nice dinner, watched a movie, and I went to sleep early, only to be woken in the middle of the night to a pounding headache and nausea. Soon after, I got totally sick – throwing up, feeling like death. My sweet Aunt checked on me and I went back to bed.
I woke up in the morning still feeling awful, but the nausea wasn’t as bad. My first instinct was to skip the race; just go back home to Santa Cruz and sleep. But I know myself, and I knew I would be regretting it later. I knew within a few hours I would start to come back to life again, and would think to myself, Why didn’t you at least try the race?!
I decided I would at least try to do the race, even if it was miserable.
When I got to Mammoth Bar, I was immediately buoyed by seeing my racing teammates. Their patience and support helped me push through what would be a hot, punishing day of riding – with about 3,500’ of climbing to seal the deal. There were multiple injuries that day; one person had to be airlifted by helicopter after riding – literally – off of the Confluence Trail and almost straight into the American River. There were many mechanicals, too; I came up on a rider who flatted, and a rider who dropped a chain, on Stage 2. The seconds I spent slowing for them until I could pass proved to matter at the end of the day.
I had to take a short nap after one of the transfers, feeling completely exhausted, but kept sipping my water and Cranked Naturals Lemonade, which I credit for helping me finish that race at all.
By the final lap, Stage 4, I was coming back to life and feeling better again. I gave that last stage my all after somewhat conservatively riding the first three stages.
Coming through that finishing gate is the best feeling! I usually give out a loud “YES!” when I cross through because it feels so amazing to know you are actually done. I love that feeling, and it motivates me during the tough times of the ride. Check out a short video of the course here.
I should have been happy I did the race at all, what with food poisoning and all. I should have been happy that I ended up in 2nd place for this race. But to miss 1st place by only .7 seconds?! GARR!!!!! This was the worst feeling! Less than one freaking second separated me from that top spot. My mind reeled through every missed opportunity to gain that time. One more pedal stroke! One more push! I should’ve passed those people sooner!
My self-pride about just doing the race while sick went out the window. I was mentally haunted by that 7/10 of a second for days after the race, thinking of every little situation where I could have gained back that tiny fraction of time. I don’t ever want to feel this way again! It was so frustrating. I can only imagine how elite level athletes, like Olympians, must feel when they lose by even less time. It was a painful reminder that every millisecond counts when you’re racing, even when you’re sick – something I unfortunately would encounter at the next race.
China Peak is part of the CES Golden Tour. The Golden Tour is a series of three races, all part of the CES, which are considered the hardest courses. They are also qualifiers for the Enduro World Series, something I daydream of riding…only in my dreams! I raced China Peak last year in the Beginner category, and got second place. China Peak, in one word, is loose. The dirt just gives way under your tires. You pinball between granite rock boulders and loose, decomposed granite as fine as sand. This is technical, challenging, all-mountain riding in its primitive state. China Peak doesn’t do much, if any, mountain bike trail maintenance, pretty much letting Mother Nature, and mountain bikers, shape the trails. Those who’ve been riding here a long time speak of the drops growing taller each year; the trails getting scarier to ride. Let’s just say it’s slightly intimidating to ride here if you’re new to the area.
Top of China Peak
I drove up the day before the race to preride, but I lagged and didn’t get there until 2 p.m., when the line for the chairlift was about thirty minutes long. With the chairlift ride itself about 25 minutes, I only squeezed in one practice run on Stage 4, the one stage I didn’t ride last year. In retrospect, it would’ve been wise to have gotten there earlier and preridden the entire course. Though I’d raced Stages 1-3 the previous year in the Beginner Category, my Sport 35+ category also included Stage 4.
That evening, I drove up Highway 168 to Kaiser Pass, parked my car, and hiked up a rough trail to an overlook that dropped my jaw. I cried in a moment of total appreciation for life. Sometimes I tear up when I’m really enjoying an experience, taking in the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of each place. It’s not lost on me that life is too short, passing by too fast, and the older I get, the more I value doing what I love, where I love, with those I love. There is something so moving and emotional about the raw beauty of wilderness that makes me feel so at home, that makes life feel more sacred and meaningful.
I watched the sunset from Kaiser Peak and felt completely at peace taking in the amazing scenery of the High Sierra.
I had a veggie burger and salad from the hotel restaurant at China Peak Inn, and went back to my hotel room to get an early night’s rest. My water bottle was empty, so I filled it with water from the hotel tap. I immediately noticed it tasted off – metallic and astringent. But it was the only water to drink, so I drank a glass and went to bed.
I woke up on raceday morning, and drank a couple of glasses of water. About ten minutes later, I was throwing up violently.
Sick last race, and now this one too? Seriously?!
I couldn’t believe it was happening again. But this felt different from the last time, when I was sick in the middle of the night with what felt more like food poisoning. I felt like I was just starting the grueling process of fighting whatever it was that was kicking my butt.
I laid back down in bed, and set my alarm for an hour later, at which point I would need to decide to kit up and race, or call it a day.
Just go home. It’s only a race. It doesn’t matter; no one cares. You don’t need to torture yourself.
But I cared. I abhor quitting; it grates at my spirit. I might also be a little bit stubborn; headstrong, perhaps to a fault at times. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t at least try, especially since I was there at the venue. I reluctantly headed out to start the transfer up to Stage 1, which was a long fireroad climbing about 1,700′ poised in the blazing sun. Fortunately, I was joined by my sweet, encouraging teammate and friend, Anne-Laure, who stuck with me all the way up that climb for about an hour.
“You can go ahead; you don’t need to wait for me,” I tried to tell her.
“I know, but I want to make sure you’re going to be okay,” she consoled me. She patiently and kindly encouraged me, waiting as I took several rests in the shaded spots. I even started crying at one point. I get really emotional when I’m sick, and I just felt defeated; frustrated that this was happening again. I was ready to turn around, ride back down the trail, and just quit.
“Is this the longest transfer?” I asked her.
“Yes. If you can push through this one, this is the longest climb; the second climb is super short, and the last two are lift-assist,” she answered. That was key information; if I could just do this, maybe I could finish the downhills. I am way more confident in my downhill skills than climbing in the heat while sick. I knew I could ride the terrain here; maybe not with grace today, but I could muster through it with the help of gravity. With that in mind, I committed to suffer up until the top, and ride the race with a stage-by-stage approach. I also accepted that I might end up quitting.
Once we got to the top of Stage 1, I was ready to get started. I chipped in and went, riding rather timidly down the trail. I was tired. I could feel my body struggling. I wanted to finish the race, yes, but I didn’t want to hurt myself doing it. So I eased into it, warming up as I made my way down.
Stage 2 was a bit more technical, and I fell a couple of times. Nothing bad; just startling. I endo’d straight on my face into some soft dirt, thanking my full-face helmet and body armor for sparing me any injury. Knowing I was on the clock, I got back up on my bike as quickly as I could and kept riding. I slowed my roll, reminding myself it was only a race.
After I finished Stage 2, I still felt awful, but the last two stages were lift-assist, so I figured I could hang in there and finish them. I boarded the chairlift up to Stage 3, and started feeling worse by the minute. By the time we were nearing the summit at about 8,700’ elevation, I was puking off of the chairlift. This was not a comfortable spot to get sick in, hanging above the ground on an old chairlift, feeling like I needed to keel over into a ball. Holding onto the bars for extra safety, I began to cry. Not just cry, but sob like a baby. Why now? Why am I not feeling better yet?!
When I got off the chairlift at the top, the lifties unloaded my bike and noticed I was crying. I walked over to a shady area, took off my gear, and just sat down crying. I was overwhelmed. Exhausted. Feeling like total crap. All I wanted was my bed. I was half-way done with the race, tantalizingly close to being done with it, but that last half loomed like a mammoth of a challenge.
A nice man came over to check on me; he was a Medic, apparently.
“You okay there? Are you crying because you crashed, or something else?” he gently asked.
“I’m okay; I’m just super sick. I just threw up off the chairlift, and I’ve been puking all morning. I don’t want to quit the race, but I don’t know if I can keep going. Can I ride the chairlift back down with my bike if I don’t think I can finish?” I vented to him, breathing hard through my childlike sobs. I often revert to a child when I’m sick like this.
“Of course you can; only you can make that call for yourself, but it is only a race. What’s most important is to take care of yourself,” he comforted. “Do whatever you need to do”.
I took a breath and contemplated my next move. “I just need a few minutes to rest here in the shade, and then I think I can keep going. Thank you for checking on me.”
After about ten minutes, I felt collected enough that I could fight through Stage 3. I made my way over to the staging area, where some of my teammates were. They could tell right away something was off with me, and I told them how miserable the morning had been. Jeni, one of our team captains and a nice friend of mine, compassionately encouraged me to do whatever I needed to do to take care of myself, reminding me it was only a race. I laid down on the ground next to them in the shade, and closed my eyes for a short nap with my buff over my eyes. After about twenty minutes, it was time to start the stage. Though I still felt awful, I was ready to get it done.
Stage 3 was a long stage, and I fell again. I reminded myself to slow down. Fatigue is the enemy of mountain biking because it makes you sloppy, which equals dangerous. By the time I finished the stage, I felt completely spent. But there was only one more stage to go.
I boarded the chairlift for that last stage, feeling like I was hanging on by a thread. I was starting to feel light-headed and like I was going to puke again. About halfway up the lift, I noticed a creature on the hillside; it was a cute Pacific Fisher! I’d never seen one before, and despite my heavy spirit, considered it a token of good luck to finish the race. All I had to do was get off the chairlift and ride back down. That Fisher was so adorable!
When I got off the chairlift, however, I saw about 100 racers lined up waiting to start Stage 4, and they hadn’t started releasing riders yet (check out a video of the full-course here). It was going to be about an hour wait, and I felt a sense of panic in my body. I knew right away that I didn’t have it in me to wait around another hour or so, at altitude, for all the other riders to go. Whatever it was I was sick with, being at nearly 9,000′ wasn’t helping. I feared I might even become a medical emergency if I didn’t get myself down to a lower elevation stat.
I don’t think of myself as a princess or diva by any means; I’m pretty self-sufficient (most of the time, ahem), and don’t like imposing on others to meet my needs. Entitlement is the antithesis of what I appreciate in a person. But this was an extenuating circumstance; I was sick as a dog and needed to get the race over and done with. I could feel my Mama Bear instincts kicking in to protect myself. And I was feeling a little bit desperate.
I walked up to the front of the line, where all the guys were waiting to start. With dirt on my face and fighting back tears, I apologized first for even asking them what I was going to ask. I explained that I’d been throwing up all morning and was barely hanging on by a thread; that I needed to get back down the mountain as soon as possible to a lower elevation.
“Is there any way you guys would let me go towards the front of the line with you so I can get this overwith?” I asked. Only a mild reluctance was palpable from some of the guys, but quickly their compassion shined through. I felt bad asking them, given that they’d been waiting who know’s how long for their turn.
“Of course you can; that sucks you’re sick. Get it done,” they commiserated.
I was beyond grateful for their grace toward me. I grabbed my bike and lined up at the front of the line with the Sport U-18 crowd, feeling guilty for doing so. I bet some riders assumed I was some kind of self-important diva cutting in front. It’s kind of embarrassing to have happen, to be honest, and I pray to the racing gods that this never happens again.
Having ridden this stage the day before, I felt most confident on it out of all the other ones. I knew I had ridden it fast and clean the day before, so I decided to give everything I had left to it. It also helped that I didn’t want to slow anyone else down; I wanted to try and keep some sort of pace with the young’uns behind me.
I roared down that trail, giving it every last ounce I had, motivated by the sweet release of almost being done. I expected to be passed by several riders on my way down, but ended up passing one guy myself, and only got passed by two riders, whom I got out of the way for quickly so as not to slow them down. I felt good riding the rest of the trail, and passing through that final gate at the end of Stage 4 felt like the relief of a lifetime. Freedom!
After turning in my timing chip, I went straight to Huntington Lake for a quick, refreshing dip, and reflected upon the whole experience in this video below. I’m so tired, I say it’s January 30 when it’s actually June 30.
Upon returning back to the venue and checking my time, I was surprised I did well, earning First Place for the Sport 35+ category. I also shaved a load of time off compared to last year’s results of Stages 1-3.
Of all races, this win probably felt the best because it was so hard. Physically, it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. If that sounds overdramatic, the next time you are throwing up and feeling like you want to curl up in a ball, go try a challenging mountain bike race, at altitude, in the sun. It wouldn’t have been such a tough race, of course, had I been feeling well. Mentally, it was just as hard to balance my well-being with my desire to finish the race. How do you weigh pushing your physical limits with preserving your health and safety? What happens when you redefine those limits? It’s never something I want to repeat, but knowing I could do this helps build resilience.
I also find it strange that I got sick at both of the last races. I take good care of myself, eating and hydrating well, and am looking into what connections there may be. I’m going to give my water bottles, Camelbaks, and travel mugs all a good deep cleaning as a start. I think altitude certainly played a part in this situation, but am most suspicious of the hotel’s water. After the race, I told the front desk about how the water tasted funny and I got sick, just in case anyone else had the same issue. The employee said they only drank the filtered water, pointing to a large ewer in the registration lobby. I asked him to please take note of it and look into it. I’m not outright blaming their water, but consider it a likely culprit.
China Peak Podium: Jeni, Me, & Erica
I took a nap in my car for a couple of hours after the race before joining the rest of the crew for dinner and the awards ceremony. My appetite was coming back, and though I was spent, it was fun to hang out with everyone before heading back home to Santa Cruz.
Now it’s time to take a break from racing for a few weeks or so. I look forward to enjoying the golden month of July, that one month each year that is completely uninterrupted by work. Time on my bike, in the garden, and among loved ones in beautiful places are what I savor about this time of year.
I’m not sure what direction I want to go in with racing. I only like doing things when they are enjoyable, which includes challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone. So far, it’s been pretty fun, minus being sick twice. I’m ranked #1 for the Sport Women 35+ category at the moment. How far do I want to go? How far can I go? I’m not sure yet, and I know I’m only getting older. I’m not sure how much racing matters to me, either; how important is it to “prove” myself? And to whom? What am I trying to prove, anyway? In the end, you’re really just racing against yourself, regardless of how you place. All I know for sure is I love mountain biking, and I’ll keep riding as long as I can.
Enjoy your Summer! Relish all of the fun things there are to do outside. Thanks for reading!
As of last Thursday, I am free until August 20. That means more time for riding!I have a full slate of mountain bike races scheduled for Summer, and am super excited to be racing on my new Santa Cruz Hightower LT. Admittedly, I am still getting my suspension dialed; I have had many awesome rides, but some rough rides as well. One of the hiccups was my rear fork: it had the incorrect tune for my bike (DGDX). I thank my husband Ron for bringing it to my attention, and now I have the correct tune (Fox Float DPX2 Tune ID DDT8). I can’t wait until I feel that moment when everything is just right. She sure loves to go downhill, though! That’s one thing my bike seems to do quite naturally. Its geometry lends itself to flowing downhill.
I’ve always been a fan of taking breaks – from anything. When I’m feeling exhausted to the point of pessimism, taking a short rest is exactly what I need. Within the realm of Enduro mountain bike racing, you get to take these breaks without penalty, and give the timed stages your all. Cross-country racing, on the other hand, is timed start-to-finish continuously, so taking a break becomes less preferable since you lose time. I weighed the realities of this when I did my second ever cross-country race, the Santa Cruz Old Cabin Classic.
The course winds through Wilder Ranch in Santa Cruz, California, climbing from the ocean up staggered marine terraces that meander gracefully through mixed woods and grassland. It is gorgeous in its own right, and the sweeping ocean and Monterey Bay views add motivation to its steep climbs. Wildlife is abundant, and the two times I’ve ever seen a mountain lion were on these trails. I’ve been riding these trails for years, and know them like the back of my hand. Over the last few years, however, I haven’t ridden much there as I’ve been riding on the other side of the mountain along Highway 9, where the trails are better. Wilder is known for having rough, sandy trails that can get especially rutted out by horses; some trails are better than others. There is one awesome trail on its Eastside, but it wasn’t part of today’s course.
I went for several training rides to preride the specific course, though it was already in my muscle-memory. I rode about twenty miles one ride, with about 3,000’ of climbing, and I was pretty beat afterward. I knew that 29.3 miles in the Expert category was going to be long, hard, and a physical challenge like none I’d ever done. Though I raced the California Enduro Series last year, and am about to kick off another season next weekend at Round #1: Toro Park, I’d never done a long-distance cross-country race, and I’d always been curious about how I’d do.
A few years ago, I raced the inaugural Old Cabin Classic 2016 in the Beginner category, an 11-mile ride in which I placed second for my group. It was fun and didn’t feel particularly hard, so I figured I’d try a longer race next time around. I missed registration last year for 2017, but decided to go for the full-course this year. I ride all the time, but my rides are usually around 10 miles or so. I go for longer rides as well, what I’d call around 15-20 miles, a few times a month, and when Ron and I go on even longer rides, we always take breaks and eat. Riding non-stop for such a long time was going to be my biggest challenge. There was a Sport option of 23 miles, which I considered, but if I can do something almost or all the way, well you probably already know what I tend to do.
I registered for the full-course to see how I would do under a constant clock paired with long-distance. Endurance would be key, but so would a mental awareness of being “on the clock” without taking breaks. Pacing would be crucial. I knew I wouldn’t be placing in the race, and that I would probably come in last in my Expert category, full of bombass women who eat up these kinds of grueling grinds for breakfast. I’m an Enduro racer, not a cross-country racer by training. I would have to put my ego aside in regards to “losing”, and look at it simply as a chance to try something I’d never done before; I love doing new things, especially if it’s physical. I knew it would be a challenge, and I wanted to discover just how much of one it would be.
To boot, it was on my home dirt, on the trails I learned to mountain bike on years ago as a college student at UCSC. The trails are pretty mellow to ride, and I knew I could go fast on any trail that went downhill. I know every corner, turn, and wayward root. Uphill? I’m a good, consistent climber, but I don’t normally climb 3,500’ in a single ride. I’m pretty fast on short to medium distance rides, in the 10-15 mile range. Persistence and tenacity would be key for this race.
More importantly, I have the Downieville Classic All Mountain race coming up this August, which has 29 miles and 4,400’ of climbing on the Day 1 Cross Country route; Day 2 is the Downieville Downhill. Though I’ll preride that course this Summer, I figured now would be a good time to get my first long race out of the way. I’m only riding its cross-country course because I have to; it’s required to race the fun Downhill the next day.
When I woke up on raceday, I was feeling exhausted and a bit queasy. I got some sort of flu bug earlier this week, and stayed home from work on Wednesday from it. I was feeling a lot better than I was before, but not the best way to feel when you’re about to start a long-distance race. I parked near the Wrigley Building on the Westside of Santa Cruz, and rode the paved path along Highway 1 for a couple of miles to the race at Wilder Ranch. There were about 500 riders, with vendor tents set up around the start of the Cowboy Loop Trail. I’d picked up my raceplate the night before at MBOSC, so I could relax for a few minutes before the race.
Around 9:00 a.m., we began cuing for our 9:04.30 start time.
Looking around at the roughly ten other women racing in my group, I began doing what I can’t help but do when I’m around other mountain bikers: go voyeur on their gear. Checking out others’ stuff is half the fun of these races. It was in this moment when I realized a few key differences between me and them.
First, I was the only one in flats. Out of all the guys I noticed, as well. Everyone had clips. Second, most riders had hardtails or cross-country style bikes, like my old Specialized Camber Comp with 110mm of travel. Third, most riders had skinnier, likely lighter than my 2.3cm tires which weigh about 1200g apiece. Fourth, every one of them had a team kit. It seemed like everyone had a jersey full of sponsors. Like I had anticipated, the Expert category would be filled with cross-country racing experts. No surprise there.
Within no time the pros took off. As we sidled up to the starting line, I reminded myself not to focus on my time and how I was going to do compared to the other women. I knew they were going to kick my butt. I lined up toward the back of the pack and remembered that I was there to see if, and how, I could test my endurance in an entirely new way. I was there to prove it to myself.
As the race director announced our official start, we all took off quickly onto Cowboy Loop Trail. There were people on the sidelines cheering for all the racers, which was awesome. WIthin a quarter of a mile, we hit the start of an uphill. Somewhere up this climb, the rest of the women just soared ahead of me effortlessly as I felt myself breathing hard up this hill. Why do we have to start with a hill?! Blessed be it was a short climb, but I had lagged behind from the rest of the women. I took a sip of water from my Camelbak, and committed to just finishing the race.
As we turned downhill and then continued out to the Ohlone Bluff Coastal Trail, a couple of single-speed riders passed me. They’d started a minute after we had, no less.
One of the women asked me, Are you even racing?
I don’t care how good of a rider you are; when you make comments like this to others during a race, you make yourself look like a condescending meanie. To be fair, comments like hers are few and far between; most women I meet at races have been super cool and non-judgmental.
Ignoring her snide dig at me, I remind myself of my mantra: Just do you. You got this!
Soon after, a nice man rode up behind me and asked which category I was racing.
Expert, I replied, probably unconvincingly as I huffed and puffed to keep up with the ever thinning out pack. As I looked at his raceplate, I saw that he was the Race Sweep for our Pro/Expert/Single-Speed category; it’s his job to ride behind the last rider in that group.
And that last rider, apparently, was now me. Awesome. Only a couple of miles into the race, and I knew I was already the slowest.
Again: just focus on riding the race until the end! I would have to remind myself of this several times.
But I was discouraged. I’m competitive. I like winning. I like doing well, and feeling on top of my game. Suddenly, I felt like a polar bear in the tropics. My fantastic new Enduro bike, with its slack headtube and 150mm of travel, was now looking bulky – gasp! – compared to all of the streamlined cross-country bikes and hardtails around me. And it is pretty difficult to compete against someone riding clips, which are proven to be more efficient when climbing, if not when riding all the time. They’re just not part of my toolkit; I don’t fancy super long gravel grinds on fireroads. Riding uphill is simply a means to an end: going downhill, and something I wouldn’t be doing a ton of in this race, unfortunately.
We crossed underneath Highway 1 through a tunnel and started climbing up Baldwin Loop. About half-way up this climb, I saw a Sport rider approaching behind me. Knowing he was leading his 18-29 category, and that they’d started a full 10 minutes after we had, I moved to the ruttier side of the trail so he could keep his momentum climbing the more established single-track. He was someone who knew what he was doing, clearly; I didn’t want to slow any real racers down.
Then there was another rider; I moved to the side and kept riding up the bumpy trail as a few other riders caught up to pass me as well. I could see the top, which I knew would be the start of the best downhill of the entire ride: Enchanted Loop Trail. I pushed as hard as I could, but I was unfortunately part of the male 18-29 Sport pack now. On the plus side, I knew this trail well and could fly down it with ease. With the crowd only going to get worse as the older categories started catching up behind us, I knew I had to jump in and go for it.
I flew down the top section of the trail, among several other riders who seemed to ride more timidly over the many roots and drops of this trail. One rider stopped right in front of me on the biggest drop, but I was able to go around him as a small pile-up ensued behind him. I passed a few other riders who were also taking their time to negotiate the trail with their hardtails, and felt, for a second, confident again.
And then we started climbing. I knew there was a lot of race left to go, and didn’t want to burn out by pushing too hard too soon. Soon, I was being passed again by the Sport guys. With clips. Every single one of them. I began looking for anyone who might be riding in flats like I was, but everyone I saw had clips.
I felt really out of place in that moment, and decided to just pull off the trail for my first “break” of the day and let the men pass. I lost my footing somehow, and fell down instead of standing over my bike into some weeds. Keep ‘em coming! I mused to myself, half-embarrassed, half too over it to care. The men were kind enough to ask if I was alright, which I was physically, except for my ego, which was becoming less stoic by the second. No matter all that talk about just doing the race for a physical challenge. Being passed and losing doesn’t feel good, no matter how you cut it.
The only solution was to keep riding. I got back on my bike after they passed, and noticed more coming up the trail. Just go; they can pass you later if they need to. I regained some rhythm and finished the climb out of the canyon with only a few more guys passing me.
Then, we started down Old Cabin Trail. One guy slipped out on a root and fell, and there was a small pile-up which I averted with a hard left. Soon, we were climbing again, and the trail became narrow single-track where passing is all but impossible. Though I was climbing steadily again, I could see about thirty guys behind me down the trail, with someone steadily gaining on me. I pulled off to the side of the trail, and resigned to just let them all pass.
Standing there waiting, my noble Sweep pulled off the trail next to me.
You all good there? he gently asked.
Yeah; just wanna get out of all these guys’ way, I dejectedly replied. I drank some water and let out a hefty sigh to catch my breath.
Okay. But remember: this is your race, too. You’re doing a great job so far. So get in there whenever you’re ready, he encouraged.
His words struck me right in the heart, like a childhood soccer coach. What a nice thing to say in that moment. The pack finished passing me, and though I could see more riders down the trail, I knew he was right: I had to get in the pack and just ride with all these guys.
Just ride, man; just ride: I could hear the words of my late good friend Peter Miller in my head.
We climbed until the top of Old Cabin Trail, and I was surprised I was keeping pace with most of them. There was room enough to pass, finally, so that took off the pressure of worrying about slowing anyone down.
Once the downhill section started, it felt like such a relief after jockeying for position among all of the men. I could only imagine where the other women in my group were down the trail. Probably drinking beer back at the finish line, I mused.
The downhill ended back at the finish line, where we turned to climb back uphill on Long Meadow Trail. I heard someone yell Mrs. Deetz! as I rode past the spectators at basecamp, but couldn’t make out whom it was.
As I began climbing up the steepest part of Engelsman’s Loop to Long Meadow, I saw a few riders walking their bikes up the punishing hill. Thank you for inviting me to do the same! The prospect of five more miles of climbing uphill was starting to feel menacing, and I was going to conserve my energy now that I was almost halfway through the ride.
Taking that time to get off my bike and push it uphill, hard as it still was on the incline, helped me catch my breath and pull myself together. I got back on my bike quickly, and slogged ahead up the fireroad. Along the climb up, I was passed by some more riders, including a few Sport Women.
At the top of the long climb, we turned down Chinquapin Trail, a flowly fireroad that I’ve ridden hundreds of times. I took off, riding as fast as I could, happy to have some downhill. I know the smoothest lines to take on it to avoid its notorious pitfalls of ruts. I passed a few riders who struggled to maneuver over the awful holes in the trail, and felt confident again as I flew down it with speed, commitment, and attack.
We connected with Twin Oaks Trail, and ended it with a course marshal signaling the Sport riders one direction, and me, another: a hard right uphill. I had a little over six miles to go, starting with a super steep climb. I was on my own now, the last rider among the Pro/Expert/SS categories, so at least I didn’t have to worry about anyone passing me anymore. Eyeing some shade and feeling downright exhausted, I stopped to catch my breath. And there again was my trusty Sweep.
This is my first long-distance cross-country race. I usually race Enduro, so I’m used to taking breaks, I began explaining to him. I felt I owed him some sort of justification for my pace. This is way harder. Sorry I’m so slow; you’re probably used to riding faster with all the actual Experts, I lamented to him like a patient on a therapist’s couch.
You’re doing awesome! he retorted. I couldn’t keep up with you on the downhill back there! You were flying down that; I see your Enduro skills. I’m sure it’s a big adjustment coming from that racing format, he assuaged me in a genuine, kind way that again lifted my spirits. Once again, words of inspiration provided by my trusty Sweep.
Thanks for the encouragement; I really appreciate it, I smiled with gratitude.
As I got back on my bike to start climbing, again, he retreated to his usual post – out of eye and earshot of me, so as not to pressure me, but always shadowing. He was a really cool, nice guy, and did a great job as Sweep. Thank you Super Sweep Man, whoever you are!
I finally hit the start of the final descent along Wilder Ridge Loop Trail, which parallels the city landfill, but is pretty fast and flowy. The view of the ocean with the cool breeze on my skin signaled impending relief.
I soon connected to the Zane Gray Trail and Dairyman’s Trail, which is especially bumpy and sandy from horse use. Though my suspension on my new bike ropes, I could feel myself bouncing on the rutted hardpack. I hate this trail, I thought to myself. I could feel myself getting over it.
At long last, I was actually getting closer to the end. Make it stop! I half-joked. I felt pretty darn miserable, and was so ready to get off my saddle. Pulling into that finish line, I turned in my timing chip and drank some water. I was so relieved to get off my bike I didn’t even check my time for a few minutes. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty.
As predicted, I came in dead last in my category, with a total time of 3 hours and 26 minutes, a full 25 minutes after the #8 girl. I was #9 out of 9. I’ve never lost a race altogether, and I’ll admit it doesn’t feel that great. I sucked at this race. The #1 girl who won our category? She did the race a full hour less than me: 2 hours, 26 minutes. I was about 40%, or ⅖, slower than her. Yikes. I was clearly an outlier, and not in a good way.
I didn’t expect to win, of course, or even be competitive. I don’t underestimate the role that some dedicated long-distance training, and a cross-country bike with clips, would have played. I did this race just to see how a long-distance race would feel at my current fitness level – on flats with an Enduro bike.
Post race. My bike looked better than I did.
I’m usually smiling! My face says it all Photo Credit: Pierre Dufour
Though I may do a cross-country race again in the future, I will likely opt for a shorter ride next time. It felt too long on the bike without a proper break. I commend those who do it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be a long-distance cross-country racer. It’s just not my style. Mentally, it was tough knowing you were on the clock so long; that each short break, rest, or setback was taking time away from you. Every time I heard a rider coming up behind me, I was reminded of how comparatively slow I was going.
I don’t doubt that I could train and improve for a race like this, but I don’t think I want to. I like the Enduro racing format much better: timed, mostly downhill stages combined with untimed transfers. I like how the focus is on how you ride downhill, not how you climb.
For now, I’m happy to have simply done it. Hallelujah. Check that box and done!