The trails at Shenandoah 100 suit me pretty well, so it is actually the race where my results have been the most consistent. However, with Keck Baker, Brian Schworm and Jeremiah Bishop in attendance (just to name a few), a podium finish felt a little further away from my reach than usual.
The dry conditions and the mild temperatures in the morning made for a fast start. This year again, few handlebars came into contact in the short downhill leaving the campground but we kept it under control and made it safely to the paved road. The pace was pretty high but the group stayed together such that when the course brought us to the forest access roads. It was a little sketchy between racers that try to stay near the front and those who would like to be there.
My legs felt good, so a quarter of the way up Narrowback Mountain; I took the lead and rode my own tempo with an open jeep road in front of me. It was probably the best move I made all day. When we turned into the single track trail climb, I really started to enjoy myself. Riding single track up or down is the reason why I love mountain bike so much. Except for a few tricky spots, the climb has no difficulties and before I knew it, it was downhill time. My lead must have extended during the climb as I could not hear the noise of a close by bike in addition to my own.
I am not much of a jumper over bumps but I could not help it to go over a few of the doubles even if I kept the wheels firmly on the ground if I deemed the jump would have sent me too high in the air. Only on the dirt road at the bottom of the valley, I peeked behind me. Jeremiah was 30 yards behind closely followed by a group of ten or so.
During the transition from the first downhill to the next climb, the group doubled in size but I managed just fine to position myself behind Keck in first place and Jeremiah in second place up the tight and steep single track climb. To be honest, I wished Keck would have ridden a little faster just because I wanted to have a higher cadence but could not shift down since I was already using my smallest gear (32 in the front, 42 in the back).
Nonetheless, at the top I was really feeling the effort and indeed just the three of us were still together. Jeremiah took the lead, then Keck and I followed. Thanks to few areas where the trails goes up and thanks to the trail not being ridiculously steep or rough, I managed to stay close to Keck the entire length of the downhill. It was all good fun and once again on the transition roads at the bottom of the valley, we had a little pace line going.
This is where I noticed how incredibly great shape were both Keck and Jeremiah. I could not believe the speeds on my computer. Over 30 mph each time the road was pointing down even if so slightly. Of course, nobody bridged back and the three of us started the climb up the third mountain of the day. Keck and I shared the lead until the intersection with the trail leading to the start/finish line. Jeremiah would lead us to the very top of the mountain at the same climbing tempo.
Jeremiah had some special plans for us. Having better handling skills than Keck and myself he opened gaps even on the shortest downhill section. Then Jeremiah pushed hard on the next uphill portion to make any racers wanting to stay within reach to make an extremely violent effort. I have experienced this technique first hand on many occasions. Should I have been alone with Jeremiah, I would have let him go away right there but I thought that if I could keep up with Keck, I would have a very strong partner on the transition roads at the bottom of the valley. Meanwhile Keck was certainly thinking that if he could stay with Jeremiah and drop me before the bottom of the valley; the chance of me bridging back were lower.
The only winner in that situation was Jeremiah. Keck and I were completely out of breath and the long downhill had not even started yet. Jeremiah was almost already out of sight and Keck was a good 20 yards in front of me when we hit the steeper part with some large steps/drops. I can ride this trail fine but I cannot ride it nearly as fast as Jeremiah or Keck. I just burned a big match for a failed attempt to keep up with Keck…
Later on, when the trail is far less steep, I noticed Keck on the side of the trail working on his bike. Shortly after, I was at aid #3, in no man land transitioning between mountain #3 and #4. Of course, Jeremiah was nowhere to be seen. The fourth mountain is a nice climb, this year I was not as smooth as previous editions but except for a couple times where I put a foot down, I made it to the top in pretty decent shape.
The downhill from there is my favorite of the day; it is fast and not too dangerous. I was just not looking forward to the very long flat roads leading to the soul crusher climb. At aid #4, I just had a longer stop to get the reach of my front brake lever adjusted. I rode down the 4 previous downhill with my lever almost touching my grip.
My legs were really sore and I kept looking behind hoping not to see a raging Keck Baker closing the gap at incredible speed. The miles to the finish were trickling down and that is the only good thing about these flattish roads. Finally, I reached the real climb and the heavy soreness in my legs transformed into really pain. In one of the steeper pitch I was at the verge of cramping.
At aid #5, at the top of the mountain, my old teammate Harlan Price was there. It was great to see him. He asked what I needed: my mind had the perfect answer: “Could you please ride my bike to the finish for me?” But I said I was fine, and I was off.
Being under the constant pressure of thinking that Keck would bridge back in the long downhill did not allow me to really enjoy the trails between aid 5 and 6. The body was in great pain. I realized that I was really fatigued and intentionally rode a bit slower in the downhill.
The entire day, I was thinking about the last long uphill before the finish line. Being there was a relief and somehow I even had a second wind. I climbed the second time around almost just as just than the first time with Keck and Jeremiah. Despite my really good effort in the climb, I was getting extremely nervous to see Keck storming back on the downhill forest road leading the finish. However, my efforts were good enough to cross the finish in second place. I was delighted and improved my time from 2013 by an impressive 12 minutes.
Once again the Specialized bike and components were flawless. Some people asked me if the SWAT box holding my tire lever, tube and tire inflator comes open under the rough riding. Let me assure you, it did the job perfectly both at Wilderness 101 and Shenandoah 100.