[Also posted on MTBVT.com]
The Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum Epic Summer Event was a great race that can unfortunately be summed up in one word this year: slog! Considering that the Stowe area had a ridiculous amount of rain during the week leading up to the race, things actually turned out amazingly well. It was noteworthy that they were able to host the race at all. I’ve heard that Eskimos have something like a hundred words for snow. Mountain bikers in Vermont may develop a similar extension of their vocabulary for mud this summer. How many different kinds of mud are there? I’m not sure, but I think we rode through nearly all of them in this race.
The only real disappointment was that the course had to be shortened from 20k loop down to 7.5 miles. It was really a shame because the sections that were removed are truly exceptional single-track. The Stowe Mountain Bike Club is pretty aggressive in protecting their trails. For the past couple of weeks, their “status” had most of their trails closed whenever I checked. Ultimately, it was a good thing to alter the course because I’d hate to see those trails damaged. With the number of people out on the course Sunday and the amount of mud that was churned up as a result, it was a wise choice. I think the locals would have flipped out and hunted down Brian, the race promoter, if we had ruined Kimmers.
Of course, no race is complete without a last minute burst of mechanical changes to the bike the night before. The oil on my Fox fork had just been changed so I swapped out my rigid fork Saturday night. I also discovered that I could just fit a 2.4″ rear tire in my frame. I waffled on this one for a few minutes but decided to keep that tire. It turned out that a nice new 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent at 20psi was a good thing to have in the traction department.
The single-speed class was sent off with the Elites. After a very short climb, we turned down a long, gradual double-track trail. This seemed to work out well as a good portion of the Elite field shifted up and pretty much stretched out in front of us in the first mile or so. Things then turned uphill with a grassy incline that was only slightly damp by the day’s standards. This took us back through the lodge area before going out along more gravel double-track. The first section of single-track was a really nice gradual climb with several switchbacks. I was able to keep a decent rhythm here. The climb was followed by a descent that was very similar in nature and quite fun. Early on, there were only hints of mud in places. We were off to a great start. Fairly soon, I determined that I was going to need to back off on the throttle a bit when I realized that our lap times were going to be long than I originally anticipated. I’d rather catch people at the end than explode on the first lap and try to survive the remainder of my race. I was pretty optimistic about things in spite of just not being able to settle into a good groove.
The trail led us up a longer single-track with seemingly endless switchbacks. I was really starting to hurt and didn’t have any sense for where I was in my field. About half way up, some guy on a single-speed bike ripped by me in the most demoralizing way. Not only was shadowing him up the climb out of the question, but I’m not sure I even wanted to. I later learned that he was racing Elite and missed the start. That makes me feel a little better now, but didn’t help at the time.
There was a new section of single-track as part of the course this year. It was pretty good on the first lap but in subsequent laps it deteriorated pretty severely. This mud was not just any old mud. This was a special kind of goo. By the final lap, I could have stood up on this section and spun a hole with my back tire, if my balance were good enough to stay upright while stationary.
One of the more memorable parts of the race was this long, open, soft, wet, grassy climb out on the far side of the loop. On my first pass, I was able to ride it by finding the more solid soil. The only thing that made this bearable was that it was soon followed by a really nice single-track descent. That descent was fun. Really fun. It dropped us out on another wide, grassy trail but, thankfully, this continued to run downhill. Most of it was drenched with standing water. If I had any delusions of not getting completely soaked, they were soon gone.
After a short section of road and bits of trail, we worked our way back to the start area by a series of climbs that followed a mowed path through some open fields. I can’t say that I enjoyed this portion of the race at all. Grass is probably my least favorite thing to ride on – somewhere way down the bottom of my list below pavement and polished ice. This was where I was most appreciative of that fatter back tire. I knew we were getting close to the end of the lap.
During the first lap, I was clearly not having a good race. Normally, I like tough conditions; and, in spite of all the water, we had a really decent course here. This was the closest I’ve been to quitting a race outright in a long time. I always have a mental debate on this topic at some point in every race, but my desire to go faster usually puts an end to it pretty quickly. Even when I was circling through the area at the end of my first lap, I was still debating whether or not to pull the plug. I hate quitting so I decided that I could at least finish. Besides, I thought, someone needs to be last.
On the second lap, conditions had visibly degraded. Everyone, Novice through Elite, was out on the course at this point. There were some sections I had to do on foot because of either fatigue or traction. I was just riding to complete the distance because I didn’t want to be a quitter. I lapped my daughter, Emma, at the start of the long grassy climb. She was in good spirits and was doing quite well with a demanding course. I was motivated a bit by her effort.
By the time I was approaching the third lap, I was thinking I’d try to catch whoever I could. I may be last but there must be someone I can catch. Once I hit the muddy switchback climb a few miles in, I didn’t care any more. If anyone wanted to pass me, I’d gladly step aside and watch them go by. Fortunately, I was mostly riding completely alone and that didn’t occur much. On long the grassy climb, I was hating racing, hating my bike and pretty much everything else. Again, once we hit the single-track descent, it lifted my mood a little.
I was definitely feeling tired and my bike handling skills were suffering as a result. On the final, long, wet-soup, grassy downhill I was having to check my speed due to the ruts in the mud. My brakes shoes were pretty much spent, too. Somewhere along here, my front wheel became hooked in a rut and I went down to the left pretty hard. I caught most of my weight on my hands, plowing a respectable length furrow in the mud. I also put my knee down in the mud and found a rock or something more firm than the slime. I quickly got back on the bike and continued my race.
Another mile or so down the trail, I looked down and saw a streak of blood down my shin. Funny, I didn’t think I hit my knee that hard. There was nothing I could do at that point other than to continue to the finish. I caught a few riders on the field climbs and then found sweet, sweet relief rolling down to the finish line.
As I came in, Emma told me I was in second place. I didn’t believe it. I figured my number must have been mixed up with another rider. Sure enough, in spite of thinking I was blown completely off the back, I actually did come in second at 2:32. I was about 12 minutes down from the single-speed winner, Shawn Mottram. I was followed by David Harris a few minutes later. Interestingly, David’s daughter won the junior novice women’s race with my daughter, Emma, coming in second.
While hosing off my bike, I also cleaned off the wound on my knee. It was obviously more than just the regular sort of cut and scrape I might get from a ride. This one was deep, maybe 3/8″ deep or better. I hung around for the awards ceremony and then took a detour on the way home to get some stitches at the hospital in Morrisville.
In spite of some bad conditions that were beyond anyone’s control, Brian and crew put on a great race. I’m really wishing I had discovered this race before because this was obviously great terrain to race on. They really made the best of a difficult situation. They also get kudos for providing what is perhaps the most punctual awards ceremony I’ve seen in a long time. This is one that will be worth hitting again next year when the conditions are likely to be more favorable. Results are up on the VSSM web site and at EFTA.