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Downieville or Bust: The Fire is Back

Me

Life is funny. Most anyone that knows me would tell you I’m a hammerhead. I’ve got one pace, and that’s whatever is in my tank that day. It’s a blessing and a curse, but it is what it is. Wired like that, it comes as no surprise that my roots are in XC racing -- especially given the utter lack of ‘big’ mountains in our region. The Ozark Mountains are beautiful, but they’re more of an undulating landscape full of punchy climbs and twisty, rocky, rooted singletrack. As such, most of my time has been spent somewhere between a hardtail and a 4′ bike. Sure, I’ve ridden all types, but certainly that’s what I would have considered to be my ‘comfort zone’ up ’til now.

I raced for years, and burned out about four years back -- not of riding, but of racing. Life just kind of got in the way -- my second son was born, I was renovating the house we were living in, and building the one we planned to move into. We went through a difficult and stressful software conversion, all the while our business was growing like a weed. All of a sudden I couldn’t spend nearly the time I wanted on the bike, and I lost fitness, and fast. The thought of training was a stressful one because time for anything was so hard to come by.

And that’s how my moment of clarity came about -- I decided I’d only ride for fun. Yeah, I’d ride hard, but only as hard as I felt like. I didn’t want to feel like I had to be on the bike, or stress about the fact that I should be out hammering instead of playing with the kids, or tending to my responsibilities as a business owner. I needed the bike as my escape, not a responsibility -- especially since the opportunities to ride were fewer and farther between.

There’s not much I enjoy more than spending time on my bike. I think it’s the precious moments on the trail that generally keep me sane -- the utter silence apart from the rubber grabbing the ground and the wind in the trees. It’s the adrenaline rush that I get when I clean a line I wasn’t sure that I could, or land a drop I wasn’t sure that I should try.

No one understood how my switch flipped. But it had. That in itself was tough.

So that’s what the last few years have been about -- riding as often as I could and having fun. And, I’ve loved every last minute of it. But last summer I visited Downieville as part of the WTB 2009 product launch, and it was over. I got bit. I fell in love. The fire was back. All I’d read about this gold rush town turned mountain bike mecca suddenly made perfect sense to me. I knew instantly that I had to race this event. And now I sit and type with pre-race jitters -- nervous, anxious, and soooo fired up -- just a week away from the Downieville Classic.

Mark Weir

It’s difficult to talk about Downieville or the Classic and not mention Mark Weir. I had the good fortune to meet Weir in Downieville on two occasions. While he may not be well known outside of mountain bike circles, he’s a legend within. He’s a magnet of a personality that’s won the Downieville Downhill a record seven times. And, he knows Downieville better than his own backyard. Unofficially known as the all-mountain world championships, the Classic is a test of tests -- a blistering, grueling 29-mile XC battle up and over a 4000+ vertical foot, eight-mile climb one day, followed by an epic 17-mile downhill time trial the next -- all done on the same bike. Arguably, it’s the measuring stick of the best all-around mountain bike rider.

The first time we met was at the aforementioned WTB press camp. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again -- the great thing about working in this industry is that sometimes working is riding. And that’s exactly what we did. We rode our asses off for two days all over the Downieville area. The trail system developed and maintained largely by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship is absolutely epic and defines flow. But so does Weir -- yes, he’s a pro, and we all know pros are on a different level, but to ride with and try to hang is a whole other story. It’s amazing. As we rolled out from lunch one day -- me on his wheel -- he let ‘er rip. He took three, maybe four, good hard cranks, and was gone. Out of sight. He pumped the hell out of the terrain, and picked the cleanest of lines. Meanwhile I cranked as hard as I could trying to get him back in sight. Didn’t happen. Note to self: clearly there is much to learn from him.

The second time we rode together was for some ‘fall stoke’ this past October, just before the close of the season in Downieville. At this point, my decision had been made -- I was planning to race the Classic if nothing else all season. I’d been itching to get back out there since I’d returned home in June. All it took was a passing invitation at Interbike, and I was on a plane a few weeks later. The weather was perfect that weekend -- days in the upper 60′s and evenings into the 30′s and 40′s with clear skies. And, the trails were in great shape courtesy of some recent rains and the SBTS Trail Daze the prior week.

Mark and I tackled the DH course four times in two days. The first run was very enlightening for me. Not unlike Mr. Miyagi and Danielson, it was clear I was a student of the master. He pointed out lines I’d never have seen, and talked about ways to carry speed through corners that otherwise might slow you to a crawl. He showed me lines utilizing obstacles that I’d surely have elected to otherwise avoid. Sure, I’ve raced Expert class for nearly ten years, and by most standards would be considered to be a very good mountain biker, but it was clear (once again) that we were worlds apart. You’ve probably heard the myth that we all use only 10% of our brains. At this moment, and most of the weekend, I felt as if I’d only been using 10% of my bike. I was taking some serious notes.

The next three runs were significantly faster than the first -- we had very few stops. It was simply time to apply the lessons learned, and let it rip. All in all, they went pretty smooth. I better anticipated the lines and course with each run. At one point on the second run, I made the mistake of ‘chasing the dust cloud’ only to barrel wheel first into a mini-fridge-sized rock and get launched. Thankfully, my bike and I suffered only minor scrapes, and I saddled up to hammer down once again. As one might expect, my best time came on the last run -- just under 58 minutes. I’m hopeful that with the fitness, focus and skills I’ve honed since then, I can shave a few minutes off that at the Classic next week. Seven months later, I now look at this as the weekend that changed the way I ride.

The Classic

Since that weekend, I’ve been focused on the Classic, and having more fun than ever on the trail -- something that rarely went hand in hand with my training in the past. I built a Santa Cruz Blur LT with a Fox DHX 5.0 Coil shock in the fall to serve as my race bike for the Classic. That in and of itself, has redefined me as a rider. To be effective and efficient on a coil, so much more must be done while seated to avoid wasted energy. But man, is it ever buttery smooth through the rough stuff. And Downieville has plenty of that.

While I pounded out base miles during the winter months, the Classic seemed light years away. I’d hit the trail hard all weekend, and generally squeeze in a singletrack visit sometime during the week. Despite having numerous horses in the stable, all of my mountain biking has taken place aboard the race bike. Apart from that, I made the most of a few commutes each week on my road bike.

I started putting milestones on the calendar to test my fitness, and quite often my mental toughness. I raced the entire Arkansas Marathon Series -- Spa City 6 Hour, Ouachita Challenge and Syllamo’s Revenge -- aboard the LT knowing full well the suffering I’d endure in the latter miles lugging that big ‘ol bike around. It didn’t matter though -- the only thing I was focused on was the Classic. I wanted to test my endurance and threshold for suffering as best I could, and in doing so increase my fitness and technical skills. Each would serve as a measuring stick along the way.

I added a couple XC races and a few criteriums as I started to focus on speed in the last couple months. I’ve never focused on speed before. Okay, that’s probably not an accurate statement, but I’ve certainly never trained for speed. Remember? I’m an admitted hammerhead, I’ve ridden like I’ve ridden, good or bad. This time around, I wanted to do it right, so I dialed up Ben Stone, a friend of mine who is a coach to help peak my speed.

Out of the gates, Ben had me do a few purpose-laden rides to help him understand exactly what he’d gotten himself into. After digesting the data from my Garmin, he confirmed what I had suspected -- I had a great base, was very fit, had power, but needed to learn how/when to apply it and how to sustain it without blowing myself up. We researched the Classic courses, and dialed in a training program to replicate the efforts I’ll have to make during the event. Using both my road bike and Blur LT, I performed countless seated hill repeats, various different types of intervals, time trial commutes and many long (and very early) hours in the saddle over the last six weeks, and at 39, I’m riding smarter and faster than I ever have.

Unfortunately the first XC race, the Womble Classic, was rescheduled due to flooding on the course. That left just the one race, Three Legged Dawg, hosted in our own backyard of Burns Park, on my schedule before Downieville. Leading up to that, I squeezed in a few of the Ronde Van Burns crits that we hosted. They did exactly what they were supposed to do -- redline your heart rate, push huge gears, and gasp for air in 100 degree heat -- and reminded me of how bad I hate crit racing. But they made me stronger and faster too. You gotta suffer to get faster, right? At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Finally, the day of the Three Legged Dawg XC race arrived. It was to be a family outing with the boys on Father’s Day, but once again life got in the way -- my youngest started showing signs of a stomach bug two days before the race, and by race morning, he was down for the count, and it had grabbed hold of me. After numerous visits to the restroom, I rallied and left for the race. It was hot as blazes, and humid to the point that it took your breath away. I thought I was going to be ill while they staged us -- I looked longingly at the porta-potties across the way.

But then the gun went off, and we hit it. Zach (who some of you have probably talked to on the phone) and I hit the singletrack first, and I never looked back. I sailed to my first ever Expert victory aboard the Blur LT that day, and unfortunately the family wasn’t there to share it with me. It still felt good though. Real good. Even though I’d told myself that I didn’t care about the results of any of the races leading up to the Classic, it sure made all those early mornings worthwhile and served as a nice confidence boost along the way.

So here I am a week away. It seems so surreal -- this goal that’s been so far off is suddenly upon me. Do I think I’ll win the Classic? Hell no. I just want to ride the race of my life that weekend. What exactly is that gonna be? I’m not quite sure at this point, but I promise you I’ll know whether I have after race. My race will be one for and against myself. I want to know that I had a clean race, rode well and left everything I had on the course -- hopefully ‘everything’ won’t include a derailleur or tire or something. Somewhere deep down though, I’d love to have a cumulative time under 3:30. We’ll see soon enough how that plays out.