9.6.2020 Stokesville, VA
Race Description: Rooty, rocky, slippery, singletrack, forest roads, and countless water crossings through the Allegheny Mountains in/around the George Washington National Forest. Total Course: 98 Miles and 12,240’ Elevation Gain.
The NUE Series Up for Grabs
January 3rd, 2020 – A private residence in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood and the e3 Fitness Annual Holiday Party. We had a dress code: your 2020 Personal Goal. No, it wasn’t to be written on a dream board or a “Before I Die…” chalkboard. This goal, your goal, had to be proudly written on the front of your plain white t-shirt. Vulnerable. Bold. Public. The idea intimidated many guests but everyone came aboard. We shared our purpose. Mine? A 2020 National Singlespeed Championship. BOLD! I was punching above my weight class.
Reading the update: USAC cancels 2020 National Championships put a wee bit wrinkle in my audacious plan. Fortunately, the National Ultra Endurance Series, a collection of 100-mile mountain bike races scattered across the country gave life to the amended goal: A National Series Title.
Coming into the Shenandoah 100, I’d completed 2 races in a “Best 3 Race Score” Format. Finishing 1st at True Grit and 2nd at the Mohican put me atop the series standings with only 2 races left in the season. Win another race and I secure the series title. Simple. Not Easy. Let’s go to Virginia. I’ll need a combination of my single best race effort, a mechanically sound race, and a little luck.
Another Race Installment with Uncle Mental
Nearly as prolific a character as myself in these race recaps, Uncle Mental, Derrick Seys, picked me up in Pittsburg, PA en route to the race. His legs are as strong as his COVID-beard is mangy, and we’ve both logged our best training seasons to date in pursuit of the NUE Series.
Winding through PA, MD, W.Va., and finally, VA delivered quite an experience. This country is beautiful! Well after dark, and twisting through the final 20 miles, we nearly collided with a UFO only to learn that a horse-drawn buggy moving greater than 25mph, toward us, in the woods, with headlights looks JUST like a UFO. We better get to camp, things are getting weird.
So, How ‘bout them Allegheny Mountains?
Our default race strategy: go blind, go fast, seems to be working out, however, getting a preview of what’s in store come Sunday sounded like a great way to spend the day. Derrick and I rode from the start line through the first major climb of the racecourse. Success in an endurance event relies less on the physical and more on the muck between the ears. If you’ve ever blindly followed a friend on a hike, a ride, or a stroll through town the doubt of how long, how so, and when can consume the joy of the event. The Mohican 100 taught me that an extra day of exploration can pay dividends come race day. We pedaled part of the course, we tested the limits of the Impreza on forest roads, and we even hiked small portions of the course with the hope of learning more about this area that appears a cross between old-growth forest and rain forest. A lush environment covered in shale rock and high ridges folding down on top of one another. While we never get above 4,500’ above sea level, gaining over 12K’ on Sunday’s ride won’t be hard with these steep roads and slippery mountainsides.
Let’s Toss in Some Adversity…
Thanks to Tim at Shenandoah Bicycle Company the pesky seat collar bolt that nearly ruined my Maah Daah Hey 100 win in July found its final resting place in the trash and we got a day trip filled with grub, insider intel, and some historical sightseeing. That madman Tim? He’s not only the local wizard with a wrench, he’s completed the SM100 on not just a singlespeed, but a fixy! That’s right! One gear, all pedal, all the time. If there’s a guy who can give us some pointers as we indulge in the bike shop’s açai bowls it’s Tim.
Lunch, a road trip to Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, and we burned the better part of the racer’s least favorite interval: the day before the race. With dinner complete and our bikes fully prepped all we had to do was pick up our race packets at registration. Should’ve known it wouldn’t be that simple…
The dreaded “ding”. That high-pitched noise that directly precedes the “F-word” leaving your mouth. A broken spoke. All I did was grab the front brake! You’ve got to be kidding me! Broken spoke, 12 hours before the race start, in the woods of Virginia, with no bike shop within an hour. Perfect.
That Uncle Mental character who’s been so instrumental in this journey? Well, when adventuring I’ll take an engineer over a banker, carpenter, or doctor any day. We had that spoke swapped with a next-best option from his spare wheelset and I was back in business. Never a dull moment.
A Max Effort Race, From the Start
Racers leave at 6:30AM in 20 person waves every 15 seconds. Having never done the race before, I was stationed a few corrals back and knew that getting to the pointy end of the race would be critical as we reached the single track 6 miles into the course. Crossing the starting line timing mat, tossing my mask from my face, and hammering through the Stokesville Campground settled the 3 days of anticipation. The tunnel-vision that is Race Mode remains my best mode. Singular focus and mission. No gray area.
Remember that diagnostic screen that The Terminator had when scanning an environment? Every racer has a little Terminator in them. Passing the singlespeeders who started before me I’m able to identify their cadence, the gear they are running, their kit (sponsored rider or not?), their exertion level, and even the intangibles: determination, drive, and spirit. After passing the last single speeder en route to the front I knew we had a strong field and today would not simply be a race against the course. These East Coast guys are hammers. The 2019 SS Champion, and fellow competitor at True Grit and Mohican, Eli Orth, who you may remember as Adonis, kept pace as well as a few others: Chris Lane from Joe’s Bike Shop in Baltimore and Joe Worboy with Trailer Park Racing. How do I know these names? I Strava-stalked the entire field in prep for the race. Obviously.
Back on course, I powered through the first single track climb dropping the SS’ers behind me and playing Pac-Man with the geared guys up ahead.
But, “HEY! Wait! I was in First Place!”
Being out front feels good. It’s my preferred race strategy. Put yourself out front and the responsibility stays on your shoulders. Race hard, win. Lose focus, lo….
What the Hell?
On my ever-so-brief stop at Aid Station #3 (55 miles complete), Chris comes tearing through the area, ignoring the opportunity to refuel, and stole first place from me as I swapped bottles. The race just turned.
Now on one of only a couple paved road sections in the race, I chased him down and tried to understand my competitor. “Where you from?” “Have you done this race before?” “How the legs feeling?” You know, just being neighborly. Or trying to ascertain what amount of effort it’s going to take to beat this guy. Chris Lane: 9-time finisher, bike shop guy, local hammer, rides here all the time, knows all the other racers. Oh, basically Tim. Great.
Shouldering our bikes through a thigh-deep river crossing and picking our way up the next 2 miles of single track left me alone and Chris in the lead. Damn. Bravado has left the building. Negative thoughts took its place. Briefly. That gunk between the ears always determines the tenor of an event. Control the gunk. Keep on task. Move.
Topping out on Bald Ridge Trail offered another rocky, chattering descent into the dense forest. Is 2nd place good enough?
When Fortune Gives you a Hand-Up, HAMMER!
One and done sporting events open the floodgates for possibility. Other formats, like 7-game series in major sports, ensure that the best team wins. That dog’s ass doesn’t get sun 4 out of 7 times. But in single events, well, you need a bit of that sun, and that variable is as integral a part of bike racing as your wheels and handlebars.
My best effort, mechanically sound ride, and some luck. That was the recipe for success and just a couple minutes into the descent I see Chris set off the side of the trail squeezing his tire. A hollow, “Are you good?” from me, a “Yeah.” from him, and I was back in first. This time I understood how perilous a position it remained. No options but full gas here on out.
Aid Station #4 to #5 delivered a 15-mile steady climb. #5 to #6 included the Meadows, nicknamed “Mindfuck Meadows” by fellow La Ruta veteran, friend, and super-speedy Master’s Champion Brad Cobb AKA Rabbit Sanchez, and a bone-jarring, lose an eyeball, single track descent. #6 to Finish Line? Another climb of course and then downhill home through the campground.
I never checked my 6. Forward focus only. Hammer the pedals. Keep the head down. Drink, eat, sweat, repeat. I challenged myself to imagine telling my friends back home that I was in first until the last 20 miles. 15 miles. 10 miles. 3 miles. That heartbreak: too much to bear, too much to allow through. Not happening. The days of frustrating inactivity leading up to the race, the preparation throughout the season, and the desire for a title worthy of my 2020 goal all stacked up, the motivation stayed strong and grew stronger.
Finish Line: The Grandest Accomplishment Yet
There’s no guarantee that the best cyclist won the race. I’d argue the best didn’t win. I won. I’m a learn-as-I-go, try hard, be consistent, break shit, and find-a-way-home kind of cyclist. My gear matches only because I have OCD. Hell, you should’ve seen Chris’ amazing mustache and ponytail, he’s a Singlespeed champion. Inside I’m Pokey the Patchwork Blanket. Wins and losses, good ideas and bad, and broken spokes. But today, I won. This race I won. This series, I just won. Puff the chest at the finish line? No. Just a smile. A calm, contented smile that reminds me that being pro, being a winner, being here, isn’t an endpoint. No. Basking in the warmth of a goal realized is the proof needed to confidently stand up and say more is possible. Growth is possible. And that possibility opens the void to a life story unwritten. With each experience on the bike, I’m reminded that only I am the keeper of the pen that writes this story. Ride on.
Race Results: 1st Place Singlespeed. 8:45:49