Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Race Report: 2009 Birch Fall Classic... Better Late Than Never

Like the weather this summer my preparation for the last mountain bike race of the 2009 was less than ideal., “an 8-hour endurance mountain bike race for solo racers, and a massive relay for teams of 2 or 4 people”, is usually the emotional peak of my racing season. Getting motivated to train after throwing it down at Buffalo Pound Provincial Park has always been difficult. I did manage, however, to sneak in some sweet training rides at Birch during the weeks leading up the 2009 Birch Fall Classic (BFC). Each Sunday we would make the 90-minute trip to Carman Manitoba in an effort to get in some of the best technical riding in the province, and the high-octane intensity needed for a ‘short’ endurO into my legs. I tried to soak up as much of those sweet rolling single-track trails as I could, but it is never enough, and it felt like it all went out the window when I cracked open the books again in the fall. Being a University Student is the antithesis of being an athlete, which rewards treating my body as a temple. Returning to my studies after the summer break means getting back into the ‘student life’; staying up all night, eating takeout, and partying way too much. Despite a demanding social life I managed to arrived at Birch in pretty good shape, happy to be with my racing buddies, sporting my Manitoba Mountain Bike Race Leaders jersey, and just happy to be part of the action.

You don’t have to be a student to know that Environment Canada is less than accurate, but students do occasionally pull ‘all-nighters’ cramming for tests and writing papers. The BFC forecast was for doom and gloom, but true to form, the sun rose Sunday morning as I put the last touches on my critique. No rain. No doom. No gloom.

Sleep, unlike your choice of rubber, is not a make-or-break performances issue for Cross Country Mountain Biking. ‘Seriously’, Olympic records are broken with no sleep, but your choice of tread can play a decisive role in determining where you place. Not convinced? Imagine racing your 310 Superfly semi-slicks in mud, or buzzing along with super beefy Continental Vertical 2.3 downhill knobs on hard pack. In either case, you are fighting for last place. Suffice to say I might not be too concerned with my quality of sleep, but I am particularly neurotic about which rubber I pull on before I get down and dirty.

With a forecast of heavy rain and high winds, I was originally expecting epic conditions for the race. Generally, I do well in adverse conditions, and was originally encouraged by the prospect of an epic 5-hour race on my beefy Conti mud tires. I had been training and racing on these bad boys for 2-years, and was confident in the ability of the massive tread blocks to provide the ultimate grip in mud, sand or bog.

However, confidence is as unpredictable as the weather conditions have been this year. I sat down Saturday evening self-assured in my ability to race through the worst of conditions, and by dawn, my determination had grown wings and taken flight. Confidence is a curious emotion easily swayed by the weather and fatigue. A cloudy day or a little sunshine has a great influence on the constitutions of even the most seasoned racer. A ray of sunshine can refresh the smile, cheer the discouraged, and rejuvenate the weary. The weather also has the power to shapes our memories and emotions; a grey, overcast, day can makes us feel sad, unfulfilled, and melancholy or empty. By morning I was satisfied with my scholarly efforts but mentally worn-out, and lacking the resolve to hike-a-bike through Manitoba mud for 5-hours. In my mind, the prospect of enduring an overcast race felt equal to being condemned to a horrible biblical fate. Sacrificed on the alter of higher learning I was cast down into the pit of despair where I wallowed in a morass of negativity. Yet the instant the upper edge of the sun appeared in the east I was transformed; lifted from misery, freed from the burden self-pity, reborn by the intense hues of organ and red. Alleluia the sun had risen and I was a new man!

Fatigue had dampened my spirits, but weather had renewed sense of optimism, purpose and hope, and I was once again expecting the most favorable outcome.

In fact, I was now determined! I was determined to be the eternal optimist despite having the morning from hell. As one mishap lead to another, an early start turned in to a late start, turned into a frantic scramble. Nevertheless, I was determined to taste Tim’s Java. I was determined to make the start line at Birch, even if it meant we had to break the land speed record to Carman.

It might not actually surprise anyone that I arrived late, but this time I didn’t have an RCMP escort! Being late is ‘shitty’… just ask Patrick about the 2009 Bow 80! It would have been great to be able to pre-ride the course, to stand around and catch with the racer boys and girls, to see who has been doing what and so on. As it turned out, it was probably better that I was able to save the energy for the race. As I said, we arrived late with just enough time for a very quick registration (thank you Mike!), a peek at Greg’s new bling-29er-ss, a few mental notes on which fast guys ‘had game’, and a few questions about the course.



was hoping for rain. Mud would raise the technical challenge, and stave off the boredom from riding for 5-hours on an exceedingly flat autobahn, but after further consideration that didn’t seem like much fun at a brisk 8C° with the threat of some serious rain. Why the hell was it so dammed cold anyway?

There are always three main races at the BFC - the men, the women and the feed zone race. The battle between friends and family for lawn chair parking spaces in the feed zone is like an Olympic sport. People run from their cars, arms loaded with plastic boxes of food, bike parts and bottles all in an effort to stake their land claim. The more aggressive will back their trucks up to the feed zone, setup their personalized canopy, and full Park Tool kit (WTF?). Once the dustup has settled the ‘supporter’ sit around in the feed zone chatting it up (drinking, making a racket and generally misbehaving) until the riders come flying through. I am not a Feed-Zone-Olympian in any sense of the word. The truth is I am a back-of-the-backer sport level competitor at the Feed Zone sprint. As I mention, we arrived late. So by the time I had taken care of business, and managed to get my tools, spare bike parts, food and bottles hauled over to the designated feed zone, all the ‘best parking spots’ were taken by the ‘Elites’.

When you get right down to it, it doesn’t matter weather you are a Sport, Expert or Elite racer because mountain biking is a simple sport. Forget all the gels, carbon, butt butter, ti bolts, and insanely expensive bling. All you need is a bike, a helmet, a race license and your number plate. All year I have had the same race plate on my bike (I’ll be dammed if I can tell you what that number of it is however). That is, I have never removed it from the bike. Constantly removing your plate and putting it back on before every race is just… neurotic. On-Off-On-Off. What the hell do I care if someone thinks I am a J.I.T.? Of course, the one time during the entire season that I actually do take that stupid thing off, I forget the dammed number at home. I guess I am a J.I.T after all ;) As the eternal optimist I believe things have a way of working themselves out however, so when the call to the line ‘finally’ came I rolled up with my new ‘temp’ plate # 62 (Thanks Mike!).

If you have been racing in Manitoba for any appreciable time you have come to understand that starting 15-minutes late is actually starting on time. Think of it as the Caribbean time of Mountain Bike Racing. By tradition this must then be followed by another 15-minutes torture session of standing around in the rain, snow and freezing wind (remember Flacon Lake?). Some smartass pointed out that the 5-hour endurO was now a 4-hour endurO. Good point!

We started the BFC - a 4-hour endurO - in the start/finish area (go figure) heading out towards the Big Field ‘for a change’ on what was intended to be a warm up lap. Evidently, the concept of ‘warm up pace’ escaped the lead rides who hammed off the start at Mach-1. I am never a fan of being dropped (is anyone?), even in a super long race. It kinda makes me feel like weak piss. I often have this feeling, but never so early in a race. Generally, the start is not a problem for me, and I can comfortably keep the pace, but on that cold Sunday morning, I suffered like a dog just to keep up, and fell back to 4th or 5th place behind the quad. 1-km later I was still struggling, and suffering when the race started in earnest, and honestly I simply never stop suffering and struggling for the next 4-hours. That’s racing for ya.

The first climb through the Big Field is a false flat over magnets, which kinda sucks. You might even call this the ‘hole shot’ during any other race. It only takes 3-4 minutes to cross the Big Field under normal conditions. However, a ~50 km wind at 8C ° is not a normal race, even for WinterPeg. Every time we crossed that stupid field I would go lame in the head, and think I had a double flat, look down to check my wheels, then realize I didn’t.

So there I was tossing my cookies in 5th place during the warm up lap, but was I concerned? Nope. Not one bit. I knew from experience that most people don’t like to suffer even for a short period, and an honest pecking order (no quad!) would quickly be established when we pushed into that fierce head wind. There wouldn’t be any need to fight over the single-track up to the first real climb.

Recap: I arrived late, froze my ass, and suffered at a modest pace. Then the race started and Manitoba’s newest single-speed super hero Greg S lead out over the magnets with Lipton Man, myself, Tristan and the entire pack strung out behind us. Once we were across the field and out of the wind, I worked my way steadily up through the ‘pack’ as the course wound its way uphill all the way through ravine.

By now, of course, I realized it was going to be ‘one of those days’. We have all had one of those days. Those days are the one you try hard to forget but never really do. Those days are the ones where you smile like your having a good time when your not, when you go through the motions but never really put your heart into it. When you do have one of those day your strategy is simple… survive. Yup… that it… just survive. When you are up the creek without a paddle – look for a paddle. When you are in the creek – swim. If you can’t swim – survive.

By now everyone knows what is meant by a ‘Dale course’. So when I say this was a classic Dale course you will understand survival mode on an intuitive level. You should also be able to imagine the horror on my face when we hammed into the first real decent. That is, you should know from personnel experience what some of the choice words that came out of my mouth might have been. 1.7 inch Ritchie’s at 65 psi on a fully rigid rocket is not the greatest set-up for a minefield. What you want is the full armor protection of 2.4 inch tubeless cushy sweetness. The first descent was very freshly cut, and went from bumpy, rooty, loam, to crazy roast-your-rump-stump single track. How I managed to stay upright I will never know… but I did… every time, and that’s good thing.

Halfway through the first lap I had the sense that the lead group was starting to thin out. Greg, Tristan, the young BBC Kid, Lipton Man and I all worked together; picking up the pace when one or the other slowed down. When Greg faltered on the flats, Lipton Man moved to the front, then Tristan took his turn working the lead, and even one of the juniors came to the front to set the pace. So it went, back-and-forth for the first two laps. Then the race started.

I can’t actually tell you what the feed zone looked like. I didn’t cut the course or get lost if that’s what you’re thinking. I just never actual was aware of the feed zone for the first 2-hours. I am sure there was a mob of teammates waving arms, and shouting encouragement to each other. Perhaps they were even cheering for me. I imagine there were people cutting each other off, swearing at each other, drinking, eating, collapsing, laughing and giving-it-up, but I saw none of it. The feed zone was invisible. I simply plunged into the middle of it all, and right out the other side into the next lap. Food? Water? Who needs it? As it turned out I did!

For the first 3 or 4 laps I would pull away from Greg and Lipton Man on the long grinders, Greg would drop me on the steep climbs, and we all traded places on the flats yo-yoing back and forth. At some point, I am not sure when, Tristan fell off the pace, and Lipton man had a technical somewhere along the line, but Greg had attached an elastic band to my seat post. It must have been crazy glued, because he just kept bouncing back over and over again. When I ventured a look over my shoulder, the expression on his face all but said, "you're my target. There's a bullseye on your back!" However, I was actually glad of the company… No really I was… because this is a brotherhood of suffering. The only thing worse then having one of those days is having one ‘and’ being all alone. This isn’t some warm fuzzy. I don’t need a hug and a sing-a-long of ‘Kum Bay Ya’. EndurO racing F**King hard at the best of times! It is much easier - both physically and mentally - if you can pace with a group.

Laps were approximately 25-minutes for the leaders, and after only 50-minutes I started to encountered lap traffic. For the most part this wasn’t a problem, but every now and again the slower riders simply didn't see me, and I had to shout myself hoarse to keep from careening into them at 40 km\hr. At one point, I bummed into Mr. Big Red Wheels who had decided to park in the middle of a single track trail with his bike sideways (yes sideways). Hear me when I say “in the middle of the trail”. I kinda looked at him as I hammed up the trail with a ‘WTF?’ expression. I was hoping he would get the point. He didn’t. In fact, rather then quickly moving to let me pass he asked ‘me’ which side of the trail ‘I’ wanted to pass on.

I just laughed, and shook my head. That’s racing for ya.

4-hours of mountain biking racing is a long time to be happy and focused when you’re not happy or focused. It is all fine and dandy to have race plan A, B and C, but being on your game when you’re feeling like a whiny baby is seriously difficult. At about 3-hours into the race I had become dehydrated, I was starting to bonk, and was playing serious head games with myself.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of endurance mountain bike racing is universal shared experience. At some point during a long race, you will be riding along like the king of the hill, with a puffed out chest and a Cheshire cat’s grin. On the next lap, you’re borderline suicidal and inventing excuses to quit. Beware! Once you start playing head games you become your own worst enemy; sabotaging yourselves at every point until eventually you are forced by your overwhelming negativity to give into your inner demons.

So what should you do when you’re a head case? Most people will tell you to think positively, load up in the feed zone on every lap for the remainder of the race, and eat constantly. This is all good, but completely useless advice. By the 3rd hour, I was just trying to put everything in the correct perspective, which is the wrong perspective for a race. When you ‘race’ you should bring your ‘A’ game to the line, throw-it-down and see what happens. Unfortunately, sometimes everything turns to shit! So when you’re up the creek don’t bother taking the reality of the situation into account. Reality is often just depressing, and the last thing you need is to be more depressed. What you do need is to be completely irrational given your circumstances. I am an eternal optimist, which is overtly irrational. Your salvation might be to indulge in your out-of-control-male-ego, and take offense at your lack of mojo, or become angry because you are weak as piss. Others express exaggerated emotions. Hysterically crying is good, but it is difficult to race single-track while blithering like an idiot. Whatever you do, you must reject all reason or logic, and just-keep-going.

Recap: I was still ‘feeling the love’ heading into the final hour of the race, 10-minutes up on Greg and Tristan, and now starting to make the catch on riders I hadn't seen since the start line. Even with a sizable lead on the fastest competitors, I knew the race was far from over, but I really wanted it to be. I REALLY WANTED IT TO BE OVER! I was so depressed, dehydrated and miserable that I had a little meltdown in the feed zone. You might not have noticed if you didn’t know what to look for, and don’t think that I am going to tell you. Suffice to say being a realist wasn’t helping me at all. So after some exaggerated emotions, I indulged in my out-of-control-male-ego, and took offense at my lack of mojo, then become angry because I was acting like I was weak as piss. No hysterically crying however, or blithering like an idiot. Basically, I choose to reject all reason and logic and just-kept going… slowly.

So there it is. The key to being successful at the ultra mountain bike game is not only fitness, feeding and pacing, but also how out of touch with reality you are. Don’t worry if you’re a head case at about the 4th hour of this weekends 2010 Alter 8 Mountain Bike race. You’ll be in good company.

Coach Dave.

BFA 2010 – It’s All About The Ride

BFA 2009 – Race Report: Better Late Then Never

BFA 2009 – Do You Have Any Friends?

BFA 2008 – Photo Dump Part 1

BFA 2008 – Photo Dump Part 2

BFA 2007 – Photo Album

BFA 2005– Blast From The Past


  1. Nice report.


    I should be going, will know friday... once again gear ratios are on my mind... stupid mind.

  2. Thanks. I should be there, hopefully in the heat and humidity.

  3. Maybe I can keep you company out there for a few hours?

  4. Good report Dave! Sooo looking forwards to Alter 8. I just got my headset for my new bike and will be building it tonight! I have decided to leave the full sus. at home and suffer just a little more on Sunday:) -Adam G