April 25, 2004: The Napa Valley Dirt Classic

Forced myself to go to bed at midnight and leapt out of bed at 5:12 before the alarm even went off. The day looked gorgeous and promising as I rolled through Devil's Slide in the Bronco. Picked up Romulus right on time and we were in Angwin before we knew it. Pacific Union College has a beautiful little campus up in the hills and we had no problem finding the reg tables, parking, or the course. As planned, we both registered for 35-39 Beginner Male and had plenty of time to relax, stretch, hang out, and even pre-ride part of the course. In fact, between the course and the paved track near the start line, we ended up riding eight miles before the race even started!

Everything was feeling really promising. The drive had been easy, we both felt good, both bikes were running great, the weather was awesome, and we both felt very relaxed.

The race began with a series of rolling 2-minute starts, with the fastest riders going first and the projected slowest riders going last. As old beginners, we were in the next-to-last start group. Before anybody starts yapping about "why are two experienced MTB'ers sandbagging it in Beginner class," the reason we both raced in that class is because while we are experienced MTB'ers, neither of us has much experience in cross-country racing; it was my first! And, if you look at all the times, you'll see that the winner of our class would have been competitive in any class, any age group! The winner in 35-39 Beginner Male was only about 15 minutes off the winning pro time!

Romulus and I both agreed that our strategies would be to ride strong and steady in the first part of the race and then start to pick people off as the length of the race (~20 miles) started to wear people down. The race began, and we both shot towards the front of the pack as we climbed a long, paved hill up to the hole shot, which in this case was the start of a narrow footpath. From there, the trail continued gradually up for about another half mile, before we came to a wall of earth that had to be walked by all riders. I popped ahead of Romulus on the first dirt climb and looked for him at the top of the wall, but he gave me "go on ahead, I'll catch up to you later in the race look", so I set my sights on the rest of the field, confident that I'd see the big man soon enough.

I immediately started to pass people and was feeling pretty good by the time we hit some amazing forested singletrack at about the 7-mile mark. This part of the course was my favorite and I really started to pass a lot of people in this section. The trail was extremely narrow and winding, with pine saplings and other undergrowth crowding the trail and rocks in the trail. Additionally, it was relentlessly up and down, forcing riders to constantly move through all rings and cogs, get up and down in the saddle, and watch closely for blind turns and low-hanging branches. As such, it took a lot of technical skill to maintain speed and momentum, and you really had to be able to accelerate instantly if you wanted to have any chance of passing people in the tight, tight quarters. I consider these skills my riding strengths though and really made up a lot of ground on the field.

After a couple of minor spills negotiating some steep, rutted, and sandy downhills, I started what turned out to be about a 4-mile climb of unrelenting and steeeep uphill stairs. Things were going fine at the bottom, but at the 14.5-mile mark, my race day effectively came to an end. As I started up one of the staircases, I shifted to the small ring and CHAINSUCK!!!!!! I knew it as soon as it happened and I leapt off the bike in the hopes that I could maybe get it changed in five minutes or so. It was about a minute until the next rider came along and during that time I was starting to feel like I'd be able to get back on the road without losing too much time. I got the chain apart quickly and unwedged it from between the frame and rings within two minutes. But as I struggled against the tension put on the chain by the rear derailler in an effort to pull the chain back together and line up the chain tool, the chain slipped out of my fingers and whizzed through the entire derailler cage, leaving me with a handful of unattached chain. Now riders were starting to pass me more frequently, and with each passing rider, my heart sank a little lower. "Got everything you need," "everything OK," "need any help," I heard again and again. So, I had to figure out exactly how the chain threaded through the derailler, which was hard to do with race pressure on, sweat pouring down my forehead into my eyes, and a growing realization that the last 75 minutes had pretty much been for naught. As I worked to rethread the chain, I heard the cry of "Cannonball" as Romulus rumbled past. He asked if I needed anything, but I waved him on -- it was Rom's race now. Finally, I got the chain threaded and reassembled, but when I flipped the bike back over and spun the cranks, there was a nasty clacking sound, and I discovered that I had missed a loop when threading the chain through the derailler cage. So, I took the chain apart again, rethreaded, reassembled, and was on my way. Total losses: at least 15 minutes and countless spots on the leader board.

I then made a terrible tactical blunder. Rather than pace myself back into the race after at least 15 minutes of idleness, I tried to get it all back at once. Determined to make up as many spots as I could, I hammered the first couple of stairs, thinking, "this is fucking Napa, how much climbing can there possibly be?" Let me tell ya', there was a lot. The stairs were never ending, and by the third or fourth set, I was toast. My legs were shot and my heart was sunk -- a bad combination. I did some walking and some half-hearted riding until finally I topped out and got a second wind for the last couple of miles of the course. By that time though, any chance for a good finish had evaporated, and I limped across the finish line 17th out of 20 racers in our class.

Romulus would later say that the forested singletrack was very mentally fatiguing for him, but it probably worked to his advantage in the long run. After passing me at the bottom of the hill, Romulus started to pick up the pace, grinding his way up the stairs with almost no walking, and passing riders in bunches. It is amazing that a big man like Rom could do so well on that steep hill to begin with, but get this, Romulus bent another middle ring on this ride and ended up doing the entire hill and rest of the race with no middle ring! No fucking middle ring! Are you kidding me!

His strategy working to perfection, Romulus reached the top of the hill with energy to burn and continued to pick up spots as he blew towards the finish line, coming in 6th in our class. With a functioning middle ring, Romulus could easily have broken the 2:00:00 mark and probably broken the top five.

I was bummed, but not pissed like I thought I would be if this or a flat had ruined my race. For three-quarters of the race I was ripping pretty good, and probably would have finished in the top 10 for our class. I did bonk coming up that last hill, but if I hadn't lost all those positions and the flow I had before the chainsuck, the hill bonking probably wouldn't have been that bad. That said, I think that Romulus probably would have caught me or been very close to catching me at the end of the race. In any event, this race did give me confidence that I can be competitive in cross-country racing, so I am definitely looking forward to the next one.

Let's give a serious Huzzah to Romulus, who scored his first top 10 finish and really, really kicked ass on a very difficult course, especially for a big man.

I'm willing to chalk this one up to experience, but in the next race, I want a chance to see what I can do without any mechanicals. I also think I would have been a lot more pissed if Romulus' ride in last week's Sea Otter hadn't also been ruined by a mechanical. It helped because it showed me that it happens to everyone and it's just one of those things. I can accept that, but if it happens in the next race, I'm not going to handle it as well as I handled this one.

Speaking of which, after the race as we were milling around the finish line, I saw another rider on a Sugar 1 and asked him if he'd ever had the chainsuck problem. His twisted grin as I started to ask the question gave me the answer. He did have the same problem and contacted Fisher about it. They sent him a different hanger for his rear derailler, and he said it happens less now, but still happens -- just a design flaw in the frame that can't be remedied. He did say that when it happens, he just rips the chain out of there, frame damage be damned, so the next time it happens, I'm going to try that. If I have to beat the crap out of the frame to save 15 minutes of race time, it'll be worth it.

The drive home was long but almost completely without traffic. Dumped Romulus off in the City about 4:15 and was cruising through Devil's Slide by 4:45. D'oh! Dream Machines weekend at the HMB airport and traffic was backed up going south from McNee down to 92. Taking some locals shortcuts, I was able to get down to the airport, across 1, and into Princeton in about five minutes (probably saving myself at least an hour of painful stop and go), but in Princeton, it was complete gridlock, with no movement at all. Starting to cramp up and still feeling slightly dejected, I didn't have the patience to wait for hours to go less than a mile, so I pulled the Bronco over and parked, got the bike out, and rode the rest of the way home.

What a day! Figures below represent total stats for the day, including warmups. Official race stats are available on the Napa Valley Dirt Classic website.


Mileage: 30.23 Time: 2:58:04 Avg: 9.4 Max: 32.0 Weight: 170

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