Progress! That is always the number one goal. It feels so good to come home from the infamous Sea Otter Classic this weekend with more confidence and knowing that I am making progress and on the right path.
The Sea Otter can be a very difficult race to show what you are made of. It is the World’s Premiere cycling festival. This mean that in addition in racing, we spend the weekend visiting sponsors, making connections, and celebrating the growth and vastness of the cycling community and industry.
Since the Sea Otter Classic is such a large event, athletes from all over the World line up for a chance to walk away crowned as champion.
This year the race consisted of some of the best athletes in the sport including 6 Olympians, multiple World Champions (both reigning and former), and, of course, me. It’s weird sometimes to stand on that start line and look around and realize who I am about to race against.
That’s why this race, I decided to never look around. I focused on myself and discovered new power from within.
Thursday’s Cross Country:
On Thursday we raced the Cross Country race that featured 7 laps of all out racing up gradients over 20%, down through rock gardens, and extremely windy conditions that made racing in a pack essential.
I stood on the start line, eyes fixated on the timer. 2 minutes until race start. I refused to look around me. I heard someone say, “Wow, all the heavy hitters really showed up to this one.” I didn’t need to know who was there.
As announcer yelled “Go!” my mind was quiet as everyone immediately increased their heart rate as we raced to the sand pit. Focusing on my line I was following wheels, someone crashed, I ran, but I didn’t panic. I was back on my bike and climbing up the first major gradient.
I found myself waiting for the big attack leading into the trail. Historically, starts have been so hard for me. I always felt out of control, going cross-eyed, and still getting dropped from the pack. This time, I knew I have put in the work and have vastly increased my starting ability so I waited for the attack knowing I could follow, and I waited, and waited, and then I realized I had already made the selection.
I had increased my start so much that I didn’t even feel a stressful increase in pace, but instead I was following the flow of the race. That’s a big personal victory!
There was no time to pat myself on the back though, as we entered the dirt trails I followed the more difficult lines I had practiced in training in order to continue to overtake the masses on the front lap. I had to control the voice in my head celebrating each pass.
I came through the first lap in the chase group, surrounded by people I have looked up to for years, and for the first time I knew I could keep up.
The following laps unfolded in a way that is difficult to describe. It’s a sort of instinctual feeling. The mind turns off it’s warning signals and starts to push your body harder and harder. You follow attacks and increase the pace even when your legs and lungs are screaming for mercy.
In these moments, you don’t have time to think, you have to go in the moment. I stayed in this group feeling strong for 4-5 laps of racing. Then, at one point, a move went and my mind hesitated, just for a second. That’s all it takes. The move was gone and I wasn’t in it.
Sometimes racing is really about lying to yourself: “I feel great.” “You’re almost there.” Those lies are helpful. Sometimes the lies aren’t helpful, “You’ll catch them on the next climb.” I wasn’t able to make contact again, but as the black clouds rolled over the race track and the stormy wind made riding alone even more difficult I suffered alone and finished a race I am quite proud of. I finish 18th on the day, an improvement on previous finishes, but more important than the number is the way that I raced. I was in the action, and because of that I was able to learn and grow. I am better because of my race on Thursday.
Sunday’s Cross Country Race:
Fast forward a few days of sponsor engagements, autograph signing, and beer toasting (really cool to have Sierra Nevada as a sponsor this year) we were back on the line at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning.
It was still dark when we left for the venue at 5:45 in the morning. We layered up even though the California morning was warmer than the winter that many of us have endured. When you are nervous, the way that your body designates blood flow can actually make you feel colder.
The Sunday race would feature 1 lap of about 23 miles. Lining up I felt new confidence in my start and this time having the confidence that I could make the selection allowed me to push just a little harder and have a better spot as I entered the trail 3 minutes into the race.
About 6 minutes into the race there was a long climb and at the top of the climb there was a downhill singletrack that lasted for miles. There would be no passing in that section. I felt strong as I climbed, and I even went to the front of my group. In hindsight, I should have attacked for the trail. Hindsight is 20/20. Instead, I allowed the other racers to lead the descent. It was the kind of course where you needed a pack in order to be successful so as long as I had a pack it felt that my position in it was not critical.
Wrong. As we rode down the descent, I realized that I was less comfortable at these high speeds than the others. With speeds reaching almost 37 mph on trails, I was a bit out of my comfort zone. The other racers were able to ride just 2 feet apart, but I wanted to be able to see the trail ahead. The trail was pretty smooth, with some twists and turns, but not technical at all. I feel comfortable with technical trails, but I’ve never much had that ‘need for speed.’ My small gap to ‘see the trail’ grew larger and larger until I could no longer deny that I had been dropped from the group on the descent.
When the descent ended and the trail opened up I could see the big pack ahead, drafting and working together. I fought hard to make it to the group, but as a solo rider on wide-open trails, the draft the group had was too large of an advantage. It was a long day alone out there pushing and reminding myself that someone could be right around the next corner.
I stayed motivated and finished 16th. Again, another improvement and more lessons learned. Each time I race I find something I’ve improved in and something that could use more work. Looks like I’ll be doing some tight descending over the next few weeks. I’m so thankful for these opportunities to grow and I’m excited that I feel I’m really starting to pop up out of the ground. Just wait until I bloom!
Up Next: The Whiskey 50 on April 26 & 28
Photos: Bill Schieken (aka CX Hairs)