The entire season has been an intense competition between Jeff Schalk (Trek) and me. In all the races where Jeff and/or I were present, one of us won. Based on the N.U.E. rules, we were tied in points. The N.U.E. championship based on 11 races will hinge on the result of the last race: the Shenandoah 100.
In the 2 weeks separating the Fool’s Gold 100 from Shenandoah 100, I was wondering what I should be doing different in order to regain a small advantage over Jeff. Indeed since the Breckenridge 100, Jeff has been magnificent: breaking course records and leaving the competition (including me) no shots at the win.
Well, pointless to say that I did not find anything wrong with my preparation and stuck to the training plan from Chris Eatough. During the two weeks, I made sure that the Specialized Epic 29er was going to be perfectly tuned; the rest was out of my control (i.e. the weather conditions and the fitness of the competition)
The night before the race, I found myself relaxed. Well, I was feeling rested and I remembered myself that it was already an accomplishment to have won several times in the same year against the King of the N.U.E., Jeff Schalk. So even by waking up at 3:30 am, I felt ready to perform at my best.
The strategy was pretty simple: use the climbs to my advantage and wait for the 2000 ft climb at mile 70 to give a good effort and then attack after aid station #5 where most racers underestimate the effort necessary to go over the double track and grassy rollers.
At the start, the usual American Classic/Kenda/Tomac duo (Chris Michael and Robert Marion) set a nice pace which was perfect to shape down the lead group to about 10 persons without having to commit to too much effort early in the race.
The first climb and downhill completed, we started a pace line leading to climb #2, the Lynn single trail. I end-up leading that section and made sure the pace was high enough to tire my lead group companions. When cresting the mountain top, I knew I just managed that as only Jeff Schalk and Sam Koerber were in sight.
The downhill was a lot of fun, especially now as the recent trail work greatly improved the flow. Once back on the dirt roads, Kevin Carter, Sam Koerber, Jeff Schalk and I set a pace line. It did not take long before we reached the climb #3, which is the same climb we will ride before bailing out before the top turning left towards the finish line.
Apparently, I did not remember how long this climb really is. Several times I thought we reached the top just to find out the two track trail was pointing up again. Jeff’s pace was dropping a tiny bit and I was ready to take the lead. However, Sam beat me to it, maybe not for the same reason as I but certainly to be first in the downhill section where he has an advantage over the 3 of us. The higher speed caused Kevin Carter to struggle and got gapped.
In the downhill, Sam opened a small gap over Jeff and me but at the speed we were going down, I knew the time gap will be absolutely minimal. Indeed, when we reached the roads, Sam was just 50 yards ahead of us (Jeff and I). A little while later, Kevin made a very nice effort to bridge back to our 3 men pace line.
The effort to ascent the mountain #4 was quite important which was just serving my plans. On the flattish single track leading to aid station #4, the pace chilled out a bit: I guess it was the calm before the storm.
Leaving aid #4, Sam and Kevin could no longer contribute to the pace line; Jeff and I relayed each other at the front. With the steeper grades ahead I started to “tight up the screw”. Kevin was the first one to drop, minutes later it was Sam’s turn.
By then, I was really pushing hard but yet Jeff was showing no signs of fatigue. Of course, the “Oh no!, this is not working to plan” thought was going thru my head but suddenly in the steepest part, I was about 50 yards at the front. My hopes were high until Jeff crunched them by bridging back extremely fast once the gradient was gentler. My legs would not allow for any increase in effort, but Jeff started to lose ground again. Just like before, he would come back. This pattern repeated another one or two times before the elastic snapped.
After a much needed stop at aid station #5, I did most of the climb with no fluids, I started phase two of the plan: attack each one of the rollers. Well, the mind set was there, but the legs were not responding as planned. I was riding 2 or 3 miles slower from what I thought should be proper speed. I was giving it all, yet the 2000 ft climb really took a toll on me.
Normally I don’t look forward to a long and technical downhill (because I lose time) but the pain was so high that I would welcome anything that will reduce the effort requested from the legs. Towards the bottom, I remembered to slow down a bit crossing the beds of the creeks. I don’t want to fix pinch flats like the year prior!
I finally reached the base of the last climb. Even on the flat roads, the legs felt really tight and without knowing where Jeff was, there was really only one thing to do: go as hard as possible. That was the second time I was climbing that mountain and the low speed displayed on the bike computer was the evidence of my suffering legs.
The closer to the finish, the more I worried to see Jeff making a late charge. Well, Jeff was not near and I raised my arms in the air under the finish banner. Incredibly, I just snapped the victory at the Shenandoah 100! And by consequence also claim first place for the N.U.E. championship.
Jeff came to congratulate me and I really appreciated the respect he displayed towards me. Jeff is one of the icon of the N.U.E . races setting many course records and I feel privileged I was able to challenge him. I am also very pleased that for that tie breaker race, we both had a clean shot with no mechanicals or going off course.
I wish Jeff my best of luck to a new chapter in his life. Thanks so much to the Team CF for the support. After two years we became friends and it is always a pleasure to see members at the venues. World class athlete and now coach Chris Eatough always provided right to the point advices and Specialized set us up the best bike in the world: the S-Works Epic 29er. Don’t take my word for it; just look what the XC World Champ is riding…
On a personal touch, I will probably not be able to compete in the NUE series next year, as I am looking to an assignment in China… I do hope that the start of this assignment will be late enough to race one or two times… not as someone looking to post a podium result but as a rider having fun on the trails… which was the first thing that attracted me to those races.
I sincerely wish fellow Michigan rider, Mike Simonson, a speedy recovery… Racing against Mike for the last 10 years, I know this accident did not even dent his determination for racing hard at all times. N.U.E. Series contenders be ready because Mike will be. Good recovery Mike!