Leaving Prescott I stopped for a few days in Sedona then traveled on to Moab before landing in Grand Junction of a solid week of course previews. I then detoured through Durango to Cortez, CO for a weekend of racing 12 hours of Mesa Verde with two other ladies as teammates. After a successful campaign on the women's 3-4 person open category and a well received break from smashy Grand Junction trail escapades I headed back through Moab to Junction to settle in for the big weekend.
Often when I get through with cyclocross for the winter I excitedly hop on to my mountain bike just to find that much of my fluidity and effortlessness on the trails has been replaced with a hesitant, halting, and highly frustrating change in riding style. I attribute this yearly transition to the consequence of riding my cross bike on the trail, an activity I dearly love but one that also causes me to keep a sharp eye out for rocks that will flat the narrower tires or obstacles that might not be the best location to find yourself at speed on the rigid cross bike. After a few rides of realizing that the fatter tires and suspension soak up the trail with ease, I relax, my eyes break their grip on the path immediately in front of me, and my ability to flow through the ride returns.
The Grand Junction Off Road combines more technical trail features such as step-ups, drops, and complex rocky plunges with the need for rallying flowy cornering, maintaining good nutrition and hydration, a solid base of endurance, and certainly the mental capacity for perseverance. Basically, if you wanted to earn your badge for being a mountain biker in the most complete sense, this is the way to do it.
One of the most fascinating things I took away from year two of this race was that I basically went through the same pattern as the first year. I registered online after experiencing the Whiskey Off Road and loving the vibe that the race brought back to mountain biking. After a few disappointing years of multiple laps through two mile loops and miniscule showings on the start lines the Epic Rides race series was like a trip back in time to when mountain biking was popular. After registering, I ventured out to the race course to get a few laps on it and promptly decided I made a huge mistake signing up for a course I had never seen.
The first section of trail included a number of steep pitches culminating in a massive hike-a-bike that was barely walkable much less ridable. This led to a number of technical features I spent as much time staring at as I did riding. Heading out to the back part of the loop the technical features continued but was now coupled with the feeling of being pretty far out from civilization. After the extended fire road climb that is the central feature of the loop, you get to thank your legs by hovering over the saddle for another few miles of punchy and intense fire road descending. And if by thanking them you forgot to take every opportunity to spin them out, you are rewarded with the final four miles of climbing at 11-18% grade on a solid piece of slickrock. The last section of trail typically (it has changed) heads back into the area popular amongst the locals for short loops, big suspension, and max fun and for the second year (on different trail) at least one feature I was none too excited about riding.
The first ride led to a sense of panic. “I can’t hardly ride this, how am I going to race??” The second pre-ride look allowed me to identify lines through the rock with minimal hesitancy and while finding all of them while being in a hurry wasn’t seeming likely, it was reliving to know that it was possible. My third ride allotted me the ability to ride through without stopping and not just was my competency higher I was actually finding fun with my new found confidence as well as reassurance at the efficiency of my reduced time out on the course.
By race day I was locked and loaded and actually EXCITED to get out there and put all that practice to use. The race was no doubt hard but with higher consequences of being out on real technical trails you are forced to bring a higher level of focus which in turn lets me have a better race.
Fast forward to the current year…. I register, get out to pre-ride fully expecting that I had ridden the course before so it would be a walk in the park and BAM, I’m in the exact same boat as the first year. Knowing what I had gone through and that it ended positively let me maintain a degree of sanity but regardless, it was the same cup of tea. My saving grace came in the form of leaving to ride trails that I love for a different race, flowy, fast, and fun. While doing laps at Phil’s World in Cortez for 12 Hours of Mesa Verde I was reminded that I was indeed a good bike handler and likely I was being hard on myself. When I returned to Grand Junction the following week the rain, snow, and bentonite clay kept me off the course save one quick reminder run through the day before the race. I know I am capable of riding that one big plunge but I wasn’t feeling it. Questioning my abilities on something like this during the race will lead me to slow my pace and sometimes it’s just as good (and quick) to plan on running.
I rode to my ability in the first portion of the race, I went in feeling almost cocky over my competence. While it sounds a touch narcissistic, this feeling usually leads to a better performance for me and indeed I was clearing all the technical bits where others around me weren’t. After doing so well on the first portion I started thinking too much about it as opposed to taking my brain out of the equation and started to lose some ground. I felt good the whole day, never quite in the red but therein lies my performance limiter with mountain bike racing: I never quite know when to go harder. The brain has a regulator that naturally tells you to not push too hard (for survival purposes) and I find mountain bike racing to be quite the test of ignoring this.
Finishing 15th with some of the best ladies in the world isn’t nearly as meaningful to me as the accomplishment of having ridden the course faster from the year prior. I rode my race plan to a T and had fantastic support throughout. My biggest takeaway at the conclusion of the event was not about my performance, it was about my perspective. I look at an obstacle, be it the course in its entirety, an intimidating rock drop, or a longer climb, and I think if it in terms of what I need to do to get through it. I think about the preparation, the anticipation, the feelings, the effort dedicated and the time spent, the relief when I’m beyond it. Through that thinking the obstacle grows and I allot more time to its accomplishment… which is not productive in racing. But what if instead of thinking of that obstacle as something I need to arrive at to overcome, I give it less significance in my head? I can choose to do this by looking at the bigger picture, each obstacle is just one blip on the radar and one way or another I will surpass it. Armed with this knowledge (and some practice!) I can choose to minimize its significance which will in turn allow me to push harder and ride faster. Racing is all about testing your limits and expanding your boundaries, even the ones you never knew were there.
While I have my fair share of relief at heading back out of town towards trails that flow fast and smooth, it’s not without an appreciation for switching it up, getting out of my comfort zone, pushing my limits, testing my skills, and learning that perseverance is the most cherished reward.