10.24.2020 Big Bear Lake, CA
Race Description: Varied trail with loose rock, off-camber and steep descents including the notorious Radford fire road climb to the routes highest point at 8,000’ above sea level. Total Course: 62 Miles and 8,800’ Elevation Gain.
The Final Stop on a Countrywide Tour.
Exiting the gleaming white Range Rover, double-parked diagonally outside the coffee shop by Uncle Mental, we gazed down the winding main street for an eyeful of the blue waters of Big Bear Lake. Yep. We’ve made it to California. Not confident that the tech-confusing Range was in park, Derrick headed in for a mango-lemongrass iced tea. Zero F’s given.
Finishing what we Started.
Detailed in previous race reports, my 2020 pursuit included the National Ultra Endurance Series (NUE) Title. At the Labor Day Weekend race in Virginia, I secured the victory but stopping the season 1 race short of the full NUE calendar left a loose end that would haunt me the entire off-season. Finish what was started. Winning a title is fantastic, it’s my yearlong goal realized. Finishing without any doubt left on the table? Well, that’s pro.
The Grizzly 100 (that’s kilometers this time, not miles), on paper, seemed a solid day on the bike, nothing too outrageous. For the rookies reading, when the on-paper opinion leads you to believe an event is quite manageable, raise a flag right then. No endurance race director on this spinning rock will put out an obviously easy race. Their reputation does not allow it. Waive the flag and re-up your supply of grit. Delayed by uncontrollable wildfires in September, the Grizzly race director, Derek, had his sleeves rolled up for 2 months navigating an option for the race to go on. Fortunately for us, hurdles were cleared, and he launched the hardest version of the Grizzly 100 course to date.
Tinker. We’re basically bros now right?
Ignoring the demanding racecourses and hours spent in the saddle questioning one’s motivation, purpose, and upper limits, the NUE Race Series heaped on the logistical demands of traveling out-of-state to race venues hosted at campgrounds near National Forests. That means that before the start clock dings, we’ve managed tent setups in the dark, downpour conditions turning campsites to mud pits, and cooking over a natural flame, like our primordial, biped ancestors. Not in California. No. Not in the state where dreams are made, where midwestern farm boys drive Range Rovers, and where everyone is blonde! In CA, you class it up. Pulling into the Robinhood Resort smack dab in the middle of the quaint resort town of Big Bear Lake, we brushed the proverbial dust from each other’s shoulders.
Checked in and we needed to spin. By now building our bikes looks like a NASCAR pit stop. Torque values memorized, process dialed, and turnaround times impressing even seasoned mechanics we were ready to roll….wait, do you have a pump? Shit.
No pump at the hotel, no pump at a bike path station, no pump means no air. Idiots. Hopefully walking around the parking lot, head on a swivel, I see the Cannondale branded van loaded with the Hall of Fame MTBer, and our consistent race companion, Tinker Juarez. Why do I keep bringing him up? Simple. If you’re surrounded by notorious characters, you may very well be on your way to becoming a notorious character. And, if Uncle Mental and myself can continue on a similar path, well, that’s a life well lived. A ten minute chit chat with the legend and we were all off.
Pre-Race Prep, the Bourgeois Way.
Race mornings in a tent and race mornings in a hotel could be better understood if you picture threading a needle in a tornado or in a science lab. The upper-class riches afforded us as we painted our legs with AMP cream, pulled on dry riding gear, and stood upright while we globbed the nether regions with chamois cream. Hot coffee in a ceramic mug?! Yes, please!
Narrowly focused on the ride ahead, Derrick and I casually pedaled from the Robinhood Resort just a short few blocks to the start line. COVID policies allowed for a start window of 7-7:30AM. Racers chose when to leave and finish times are recorded via number plates. This innocuous detail would reign havoc on my mental state in just a few short hours.
Racing Blind and seeing everything.
62 miles? No big deal. Derrick and I chatted briefly with fellow NUE Hammer, Logan Kasper, and also with race director Derek before we pushed off at 7AM with roughly 50 racers. The rest of the racers would start behind us within the next 30 minutes. A COVID-be-damned knuckle exchange between Uncle Mental and I complete, I set off at a strong pace.
The first 5 miles featured uphill fire road. With my single gear propelling me forward I chewed up geared racers one-by-one as daybreak turned to morning sun. My strategy changed in the minutes leading up to our start. With only a few single speeders opting for the prompt 7AM start, I knew my greatest competitors lurked somewhere behind me. They held a trump card: pass me and they win. I was blind. I knew I had pocket Kings, and I would play them aggressively, but consistent challenger, and 2019 SS Champion, Eli could have Aces. I wouldn’t know, and if I did learn he in fact was flush with Aces, it’d be too late. No coasting today. Pedal!
That freaking singletrack!!
You may not be a racer. That’s cool. We can still be friends…probably…maybe. I mean you do at least like to ride bikes right? Racer or not, if you appreciate special trail, you’d appreciate Big Bear, CA. The first descent took us careening of a Ridgeline into moon dust, off-camber trail hugging for its life onto the mountainside. With the finesse of a bull rider, I hung my outside leg 90° from the bike and quasi-controlled my downhill ride. Remembering the YouTube footage posted on the Grizzly Facebook Page, I committed to the rut and let go of the brakes. NOTE: the greatest lesson XC racers need to understand on descents is just that, let go of the brakes!
Surviving the 7 Oaks descent, stopping for a “man that was exhilarating” pee break, and continuing down fast fire road my shit-eating grin couldn’t be tamed. The views, the trail, the solitude (nobody around) drew near the reason I love this sport. If that was enjoyable, then the next section would be Heaven-on-Earth. SRT, or Santa Ana River Trail, brought out all the trail building tricks. Tight corners, fast-rolling trail cut just inside of tree trunks, and just-frequent-enough rock challenges to keep a rider honest joined hands in a 4.5 mile stretch of MTB bliss. Now, MTB bliss is different than simple bliss. MTB bliss means you can still go to the hospital if you’re sloppy. Another pee break helped some geared riders close the gap behind me and I took off just before they reached my outhouse. With riders on my tail, I was motivated to push my speed. Wrapping around a boulder with my left shoulder I held the narrow trail turning left, away from the steep hillside edge. The rider behind me? Not so lucky. I didn’t see it. I didn’t need to. The, “uh-oh! Ahhh! OOOOHHHH!”, shouts behind me drew a clear picture. A rider just squirrel-suited off the edge of the trail. Bliss with a side helping of cuts and bruises. Knowing he wasn’t alone, and that the GU packs and CO2 cartridges I had on me were not the support items he probably needed, I kept on albeit with a crisper awareness of these quick left turns.
As often happens, blissful single track descents only made possible by painful, never-ending, fire road climbs. The trail spat me out at the bottom of the racecourse and the next 9 miles would be an uphill grunt. Get in what you put in.
The famed Radford Road Climb.
Much energy surrounded the words: Radford Road in our learning about the Grizzly 100 course. Likening it to the legend that is the Columbine Road climb at the Leadville 100 I knew that my approach to the upcoming challenge could determine the outcome of the race. Racing and completing a given ride couldn’t be terms further apart. The ability to determine which term is appropriate, however, is a threadbare difference existing between the ears.
With 1 of 2 drop bag aid stations being at the bottom of this notorious climb, I reloaded my two bottles, took down a GU, and chugged a bottle of Beta Red. Time to battle.
The next 4.5 miles gained nearly 2,500’ of elevation with an average grade of 10%. Every piece is uphill. A famed cycling quote goes: “Not all miles are created equal.” A picture of the Radford Road should be permanent attached to those wise words. Where Columbine features constant grade over a predictable dirt road, Redford offers variable traction and gut-punching steeps over rocks stable as a blind man’s Jenga tower. Push. Pull. Hinge. The effort to stay upright on the singlespeed meant my whole body must work in concert as fatigue spread evenly. Any acute pain and I could be wrestling a cramp monster just itching to shut me down.
My favorite Winston Churchill quote: “I play for high stakes and given an audience – there is no act too daring or too noble.” Right you are sir and the geared riders behind me, and that I passed, offered the audience that kept me upright that entire climb. With my heart rate breaking the elusive 90% mark I had every lever pinned forward and as if on cue my race bro Logan came up from behind. Logan’s a machine and being passed by him, on gears mind you, had no ill effects. I finally had an opportunity to answer the question nagging me since the start!
Me: “Hey Logan! You caught me!”
Logan: “I was trying too! How are you doing?”
Me: “Fantastic man! You are cruising, go get it! …hey…did you see Eli back there at all?”
Logan: “Yeah, I passed him a long time ago. He started when I did, around 7:15.”
Me: doing fast mental math. “You think he’s more than 15 minutes behind?”
Logan: pulling away at an impressive rate. “Uh, I don’t know man. See ya!”
It’s all Mental.
Reminded that this race was real, that I was indeed racing other people and not just riding a steep course over amazing terrain, renewed the necessary flame all racers must have buried deep in their bellies. Topping out at 8,000’, the Radford summit meant the rest of the race was downhill…except for those 3 little climbs, no big deal. Passing the second drop bag site rewarded me with another twisty bit of single track goodness. That Joker smile again painted my face and a short fire road climb back to the drop bags gave me the necessary bottle reload to finish the race. Wait! Who’s that?? I swore I saw him. Eli! Dipping into the single track I just left, only 2.2 miles of downhill, he’s on my tail!
Filled with lesson-learning moments, my racing career’s responsible for both mental triumphs and mental defeats. I am not undefeated by a long stretch. Seeing a competitor too close for missiles, switching to guns, crushed my gusto in the early years of racing. Heck, I’ve been crushed recently by the same realization if I was already on the rivet. Experience, being a great educator, reminds me that all racers are hurting when pushing the levers. Having kept the cramp monster asleep, and with miles of singletrack ahead of me, I knew I could evade Eli’s guns. Pedal. Drink. Focus.
This is the race that never ends. It goes on and on my friend. Some people started racing it…Not knowing what it was.
Those twisted lyrics, from the infinitely iterative children’s song on Lamb Chop’s Sing-Along, first entered my brain as a tiny pup and has never left. It’s annoying. It’s frustrating. And it’s a consistent thorn in the side of every long effort. Equally pestering was the end of this race.
On its own, the Skyline Trail features more fantastic singletrack. Unlike any trail before it, this 7-ish mile route features giant boulders to needle around and through, fast twisty berms, and nifty drops, and technical challenges. Fantastic trail design, unfortunately, rode upon in the fading energy of a maniacal XC racer. I’ve got to spend time understanding my Bryton bike computer a bit more. I’ve relied on it for 4 years now and still do not know the advanced calculus used in the mapping feature. The flag, indicating the finish of the route, shows being only 3 bends away. 10 minutes later? 5 bends away. I see what’s happening here. I get closer, you zoom in, I get closer, you get more particular. Oh, how cute your game is Mr. Bryton. You damn bloke. Go back across the pond!
Fortunately, with Churchill-esque prodding, the hikers I began encountering cheered unintelligibly for our race of which they surely knew nothing about. Some of them learned that handlebars going uphill move for no man, or woman. They got eye witness account of the final dregs of muscular endurance being forced forward. Some were even barraged by the dinging pleasantries of a Spurcycle bell rapped on with the fervor of an amphetamine-addicted altar boy. Yes, the tail end of a race can at times be ugly. Shouldn’t the edge of our abilities always be ugly? Shouldn’t we reach so deep into ourselves that we shed all prefrontal cortex “I thoughts”? Fart, puke, spit, and grunt past cares and into our edges. Pedal. Drink. Focus.
A yuppy treat awaits.
Not a greasy burger with bacon and cheddar, nor a slice of meat-lovers protein-packed pizza, no, not a triple-scoop ice cream cone either! The food that drew me through the finish line at that furious pace? Avocado toast with sprouts and an oat milk açai bowl. Pretty hard ass huh? With 6 hours and 15 minutes of sweetened Nuun Endurance and slimy packets of sport-specific nutrition, I wanted the freshest food I could get my hands on. I had already staked out the source, the day before, and ignored all of my body’s desires to sit and chill. After guaranteeing the win that race director Derek already announced over the PA, I would be fast into a pair of California-appropriate skinny jeans and jetting to Frusion Juice and Coffee Bar, cash-in-hand.
Eli?! And those 15 minutes?! Back to reality you slobbering glutton of sprout-craving stupidity. Without a phone at hand, I asked Logan the time? Eli crossed at 1:31. I at 1:15. If he started at 7:15AM, as Logan shared, then this may come down to seconds?!
Casually, as a new friend should, I rolled over to the dust-covered, chest-heaving Eli for a celebratory fist bump. Tiptoeing around asking for his actual start time, I learned his harried morning including a lost helmet that required a quick drive to the trailhead from the day before. He tracked down the necessary lid cover and finally started at… “7:30?” he asked fellow SS racer, Josh Kunz. “Maybe 7:15 or 20?” Josh replied. “I’m not sure,” Eli concluded. Guys, you’re killing me I thought. Leaving the Land of Maybes, I headed over to the timing tent to learn that Eli started at 7:08 and that I won by 11 minutes. Whew. Mission accomplished. Well, mission number one. Onto more important things, give this yuppy that damn avocado toast.
2020 Grizzly 100 Singlespeed – 1st Place
2020 NUE Series Finishes: 1-2-1-1
2020 NUE Series Final Points: 3. 1st Place
What was started, is finished.
Hats off to the race directors at each of our venues this year. Golf clap for NUE director Ryan who, like many of his series directing peers, has endured sweaty palms for several months now. The NUE Series title bought full circle this two-year journey on my singlespeed. Next season I’ll bring a new SS to the start line in our relationship with Norco Bicycles. I’ll look to defend my newly crowned National Title. May next year be met with more events, larger crowds, and freer spirits as we look to live beyond the pandemic. I’m committed to being even faster, more disciplined, and acutely focused on driving my edge out further. I’m willing to be ugly at the end and gracious to the opportunities. Scrapping the last of that açai bowl clean I witnessed Uncle Mental, Derrick Seys, cross the finish line. He too completing his NUE journey and awarded with a podium finish on the series. Sunday morning we’ll pile our gear into that still-confusing space ship of an SUV and we’ll fade from this sequestered existence. We XC-racers will simply become spouses, worker bees, and grocery getters. A piece of us, however, will remain behind the bars, pedaling, drinking, focusing.