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.
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!
And now I’ve raced 29 miles on my 29er.