This year again, I made the pleasant trip from south east Michigan to Central Pennsylvania. The weather was just perfect to spend 6-7 hours on the bike. I have done this race 7 times so I pretty much know what is in store for the day.
Despite riding a good tempo on the first climb, the size of the group reaching the top was still larger than any previous editions. Now a lot of riders are much better prepared and can challenge more established riders. With the dry conditions, I left plenty of space between me and the rider in front of me during the fast downhill on the dirt road. Few years back I witnessed a rider crash at top speed and I just wanted to be ready to avoid the pile up should this event happen. It was not necessary in that particular downhill but it proved a smart move when a rider washed out just before aid #1.
By now, some riders started to feel the effort and the lead group trimmed down to a dozen riders. The following downhill was uneventful except for the snake the lead guy and myself, in 2nd place, almost rode over. I heard the leader yell something, when I looked down my first thought was: “Please people, pick-up your old tubes…” and as I came closer I realized it was a large black snake with gold patterns. All this happened in a flash as we were riding well over 20 mph.
Approaching the Three Bridges single track trail, I rode harder and found myself in the lead. I made a good push in the trail and by the time we came out on the dirt road, the lead group was fragmented. I continued with the fast pace going up the road and finally it was just 2 of us at the top. We rode together until aid #2 where the chasers finally closed the gap.
I hope they had to commit some effort to join back to us because I felt as though I put in a good effort myself. Shortly after aid #2, there is a long climb and I was getting tired. We were 4 riders at the front and Keck Baker increased the tempo towards the end of climb allowing him to enter the rough single track downhill first. I came down in 4th position just behind Dereck Treadwell. Dereck and I were riding pretty much the same speed where Keck was gone in a flash and 2nd place rider put a 30 second gap on us. Shortly after the descent Gordon Wadsworth bridged back.
The three of us chilled out on the flat/down roads leading to the next big climb. I was really tired by then and decided to ride my own pace. Dereck followed me as we reeled back the 2nd place rider. We lost Gordon in the process and entered the 2nd stretch of rough single track downhill. Just like the previous time, I came last of our group of three. My hands and arms were still not fully recovered from the firm grip needed during the first downhill. I was looking where I could stop and rest my upper body. It was really rough trail and another couple miles of that riding would have forced me to stop and rest.
The three of us reached aid #3 and we rode the uphill right after that. Only Dereck could follow this time. I thought I made a great tempo but Keck was nowhere to be seen. His time gained in the rough trails was just too great to overcome in the climbs especially when he climbs extremely well himself.
On the previous rough section I noticed that I could ride a tiny bit faster than Dereck. At the top of the mountain I sped up to enter the flat rocky single track first. In a few hundred yards, I already had a sizable gap and it was probably the most enjoyable stretch of the race for me. My Specialized Epic was riding great. Despite all the vibrations, the SWAT case stayed closed and the tires were holding well on the sharp stones. I came down the 3rd very steep single track downhill. With my bike skills, I feel that all I can do is slow down; should I need to come to a complete stop I would have to find a spot where crashing will hurt me the least. My arms and hands were to the verge of cramping but also my legs from balancing me around the bike.
When I indeed put the roughest section behind me (without falling), my legs cramped in places I never experienced before. The downhill smacked me and I was in total distress mode. Somehow the single track riding along the creek was a good distraction for the mind instead of focusing on my hurting legs.
I reached aid #4, still in 2nd place but any desire to chase was out the window. I stopped for a long while especially knowing that course goes back up on long jeep road. Very strangely, I was able to pick up the pieces during that climb. I even forced myself to ride harder well knowing that I would lose my advantage on the flat/downhill dirt roads after that.
As expected, the dirt roads were just a nightmare; the legs were cramping every two minutes and I had to stop pedaling to loosen up the muscles… At least the volunteers at aid #5 had some good news; the finish was only 6 miles away.
I followed closely the arrows marking the course. I came to the bank of a river. There was a trail going left and one going right but no arrows. I turned back thinking I missed a course marking but the only arrow I could see was the one pointing straight. I scanned the other side of the river for a piece of tape when I finally noticed the arrow on a rock above the water in the middle of the river. This river crossing was a blessing. Of course, walking waist deep in running water comes with some challenges but my legs loved the cooling effect. Now 5 miles from the finish, I felt I came too far to lose my second place by not trying hard enough.
The legs were as tense as they could be without completely locking up. It was a very, very painful last five miles but it was all worth it after I crossed in 2nd place. Congrats to Keck for an awesome ride. I hope to come more prepared to Shenandoah to challenge him until the end.
Full results here.