First Race of the Season: Puerto Rico Tropical MTB Challenge: UCI HC Race

Woohoo! Back to racing and it feels so good! The races this weekend officially mark the kick off of my 2023 season and I couldn’t be more excited!  On Wednesday morning approximately 12 inches of snow had fallen overnight in Salt Lake City and Clayton and I headed to the airport to fly to Puerto Rico. To say there was a stark contrast in weather from where we took off to where we landed is an understatement. It feels like a completely different world here. I’ve had to continually remind myself that it’s still winter back home!

It’s been nice to embrace the heat and go through the motions of race preparation again. These early season races are a great barometer of where you are at and also a great opportunity to try out new things and take some risks that you can’t afford later on in the season. 

After a couple of days adjusting, it was time to race. 

Short Track:

At 8 am on Saturday morning I was once again, for the first time in a couple of months, in a skinsuit and standing on a start line. When the whistle blew, we raced to the first corner and the season was officially underway. 

As we climbed up the hill on the first lap, I took one big sigh of relief because the pace felt moderate and not at all overwhelming. We spend months training in the off-season without a competition to test our fitness so the very first race can be a little nerve-racking as you make sure you’re still “on pace.” 

Lap after lap we would string the field out on the climb and then bunch back together on the descent. After several laps I felt like we were going easy, but looked down at my power meter to confirm that we were actually setting a pretty solid pace. 

One of my goals for this first race was to execute with a calm confidence. I think in the past I’ve wanted to “prove” something to myself and in turn I’ve done unnecessary attacks or spent too much time on the front. So this race I was determined to hold my cards close and only play them when it was the winning move. 

Photo: FotoGandul

I may have over-corrected a little bit though. As we entered the final lap, I decided to hold my last attack for the top of the climb. Gwen attacked at the bottom and led into the singletrack with me following directly on her wheel. We separated from the group and it was now just the two of us fighting for the win.

As we got toward the top of the climb, I realized that there wasn’t as much room or as much time to pass as I anticipated and I wasn’t able to get around before entering the descent together. 

We came into the finish chute in a sprint with Gwen about 1 second in front of me. We were about to sprint the final 30 meters when all of a sudden, a lapped rider was being escorted off of the course and the official held up the course tape to direct her to the side. Unfortunately, they didn’t anticipate how fast we were moving and the tape caused us to swerve, slow down, and all together create chaos that impacted our final sprint. After all of that I did cross the finish line first, but the UCI official decided that he would place us based on our positioning prior to the chaos and so the win was awarded to Gwen and I was placed 2nd. It was a bummer that we didn’t get to duke it out properly to the finish, but I am still absolutely thrilled with the race. I had SO MUCH fun being in such a close battle in the first race of the season and at this point in the year, that is what matters most!

Cross Country:

Photo: @FotoGandul

On Sunday we lined up for the XCO at 1 pm in the afternoon, in the heat of the day. I spent the whole warm up and morning dump cold water over my head and stuffing ice socks down my jersey to try to stay cool in the scorching Puerto Rican heat. Coming from colder climates it can be extremely difficult to have your body prepared to handle 85 degrees and 60% humidity in February. Despite all best efforts, the heat here is absolutely brutal, especially in areas of the course with direct exposure and no wind due to tall grass. 

When the whistle blew, we accelerated off of the line. This time, I missed my pedal but was able to put in an extra dig right before the single track. I entered the first big climb leading the race and feeling like I was setting a solid, but maintainable pace. As we came toward the end of the lap, Gwen and I had once again gapped the field and I was feeling strong. 

When we entered the climb with the greatest sun exposure, however, my body fought back. Entering lap two I started to lose time as the heat really got to me. I started seeing double, throwing up in my mouth, and cramping. Even though my body was fighting me, I relied on my mind to think clearly. I backed off the pace, but didn’t give up hope on the comeback. Every time I came through the pit Clayton has handing me cold First Endurance, water, and a dump bottle so that I could stay hydrated and keep my body cool. Lap 2 and 3 as I struggled with the heat, I fell all the way back to 5th place, but I stayed in the game mentally. 

Photo: @FotoGandul

As I entered lap 4, all the focus on cooling really started to kick in and I felt my energy coming back. I gradually upped the pace and felt like I could finally put down the power again. I moved into 4th place and was about 10 seconds behind 3rd as I came into the final lap. 

As I was descending on the 4th lap, I hit a thorn branch that was hanging over the trail. The branch wrapped around my necklace, ripped off of the tree and was daggling by my necklace, pulling it backwards and choking me! The branch was almost 2 feet long! I tried to reach up and pull it off, but I couldn’t. I had to stop in the pit, yelling the word “Help!” I think that was the last “mechanical” that Clayton would have anticipated. He reach up and broke the chain on my necklace and I was back out on course with extra motivation to not let that set me back!

A flying last lap allowed me to come back and claim 3rd place with a true never ever give up attitude. I’m thrilled to have truly overcome out there, to never give up and to start the season with two races and two podiums! Next weekend we get to do it all again!

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