In violation of my strict fundamental religious precept - Never Do A Race With A Reference To Elevation Gain In Its Title - I did the Iron Hill MTB race. It's race #67546 of the MASS series, a series of mountain bike races so large, that resistance is futile. Your race will be assimilated and its uniqueness made part of the series...
According to Fat Marc, it isn't a bad course. It's in his backyard, and he does about 3 laps in 15 minutes. There are a couple minor rises on it, but no elevation gain to speak of. A few rocks, couple roots, couple berms... basically, a day on the C&O Canal Towpath, only smoother.
So, as I shot through the Big Dip, blowing the front tire off the rim near the bottom of it, I naturally thought about Marc's description. His ironic hipster understated-ness maybe isn't the most effective mode of conveying information, I decided, as the WTB Weirwolf made obtrusive rubbing noises on the Reba forks.
But seriously, it was as fun as a 4 hour endurance race could be. They started the endurance racers first, with M geared, M single, and W endurance going off at one minute intervals, then the Cat 3 (beginner) race. It took me a minute or two to work to the back of the open pack, and for a bunch of single speeders to rocket by. Pretty soon, a lead group of women passed me...
You might think it was an uphill doing me in here. It wasn't... it was the rocky downhills that gave me trouble. I may have set a world record for slowest first lap. The course was eminently rideable, but it's the kind of place that a rider probably ought to pre-ride. It's reminiscent of the rocky bits of Granogue, with baby heads and sharper rocks embedded all over the place on about half the course. It's also dead twisty and narrow - call it single-point-two track.
It is also pretty climby, in a sneaky way. The smoother and milder uphill bits have either a bit of mud, or a middling amount of roots on them, which means it's work the whole way. The rougher uphill bits involve grades that mostly aren't terribly steep, but which are absolutely pocked with baby head and smaller rocks, either floating around loose or in the case of the sharp ones, embedded in the dirt with the business end pointing upward.
You might think I'm complaining here. I'm not. The course was a hell of a lot of fun. Not exactly my cup of tea but the way you get better drinking that particular cup of P.G. Tips is to practice it. Riding up hills... check. Descending fast among treacherous rocks... check. Dodging trees despite the roots and rocks in nearly every turn, just dying to uproot your front tire and fling you into the nearest rock maple... check.
The way you get better at mountain biking - besides long hours on the road, doing intervals, etc. - is to practice your handling. The way to do that is to take concentrated doses of the shit you absolutely cannot handle. I figured this out last week downhilling at Wisp - there's nothing better to remedy a weakness on the rocks than riding rocky trails. Doing this at a race is the Concentrated High Dose version of the same medicine - you get so much of it you choke on it.
Not that I was exactly swigging straight from the bottle today. After the first lap I was headachy and a little out of it. Getting chicked a third of the way through the first lap by a pack of women that started 2 minutes back will do that for you. So I decided to try to salvage the race.
My on-the-fly strategy was to try to stay off the brakes and rock the downhills, pull one gear high on the flats - so I was working the flats pretty hard - and to ride the uphills in the granny or granny +1-2 gears, walking when I started to go into the redzone. By concentrating on my handling I think I turned in a couple decent laps.
There are still some limits though. Without discussing in detail where my fitness is [insert litany about the back injury, the time off, etc] my back was starting to feel vaguely wonky on the middle of the third lap, about 2:30 into the race. So I decided to pull off after three. Then I got up to the Finish line, rode past it, and I felt good. The momentary joy from passing the cheering crowd and the relatively-somewhat-almost-okay feeling in my legs convinced me to keep going.
It's at that point that I blew the tire off in the double dip, not realizing it until I was a hundred or so yards past it (darn... it's hard to pedal... wonder why my front end is making that rubbing noise...). After spending a few minutes digging out the right stuff, deflating, re-inflating, and checking, I got back on the road. At this point, the errors in judgment started happening, and more than once I had to cram on the brakes in a corner because I was going to blow it and shoot off the hillside. The partially cramping lower back turning into a no-shit cramped upper back, and my legs cramped too in order to keep the upper back company. (Note to self: start hitting the upper body workouts in the gym at work). So I slowed wayyy down, and made a point of letting the hard charging sport class riders blow past me.
Eventually, it was up and around past the finish, and I pulled off at 3:30 or so. I could have managed another lap, but it would have been a bit reckless and considering today's training goal was "a nice long ride in the woods" I hit my goal. I think most of folks in my class probably did 5 laps, with the really strong folks knocking out 6. Nice ride, nothing to brag about, but I'll take it.
Afterwards I discovered that the best way to make friends is to bring extra icy cold watermelon chunks. Major recovery food, that watermelon...