Winners never quit and quitters never win and you can't come home with a good story if you don't stay in the game
This past weekend, I packed my race bag one more time for a trip to Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville, Michigan. Saturday was Founder’s Peak-to-Peak mountain bike race, the wrap of my mountain bike season. I’ve been excited about this race for months. For one, I’ve never been to Michigan and there’s no better way to see a place than by bike. It promised to give me an opportunity to race a type of terrain I don’t generally set wheels on: smooth, mostly flat and very fast. It also has a pretty generous purse: $1,000 for first place, $750 for second, $500 for third. I don’t race for money. But it does make it more exciting when there’s a healthy sum of cash on the line.
Of course all of this also left me a bit apprehensive. I knew nobody in the women’s field, though I’d heard of Mackenzie Woodring, a pilot for the US National Paralympic Cycling team and ‘cross racer, who’s won nearly every year. The pros were slated to do three laps on the 12-mile circuit that I’d heard described as a “drag race” through the trees. I wasn’t sure how much of a drag racer I was. But you don’t learn and grow if you don’t step into the unknown now and then. I just didn’t know how many unknowns I was in for…
It started with the bike. For a number of reasons, including cost, convenience, and logistics, I opted to set myself up with a bike through Einstein Cycles in Traverse City rather than pack and ship my own. I’d heard from a few sources, including the race promoter himself, that a full-suspension rig would be overkill, as many of the racers, including Mackenzie (who I was hoping to give a run for her money), go fully rigid. Well, in the six weeks between our initial communication and two days before start time, that bike was sold. You can’t blame a bike shop for selling a bike, of course. But now my options were, let’s say, limited. After a bit of handwringing by all parties involved, the owner set me up with one of his personal bikes, a sweet carbon Foundry with a 1 x10.
“Are you a good climber?” the mechanic on board asked as he recharged the Stan’s. “I am, why?” I said. “It’s got a 36 on the front,” he replied. I thought for a moment. Course mostly flat with one stoutish, but not long climb at the end? Better overgeared than undergeared. “No problem,” I replied, deciding it would be fine no matter what.
The next day I was scheduled for a “Ride with the Pros” at 4:00, where I’d take folks around for a lap of the course and chitchat about training and race prep and such. I was going to ride earlier, but the course wasn’t yet marked and by the time it was a cold rain had started to fall and it seemed foolish to go out and get wet twice in one afternoon.
So a bit before 4:00 I rolled over. A small group had gathered at registration, but decided they’d rather not get wet even once that day. That left just me and two hardy locals, a couple who were fairly new to the sport. She’d been riding less than a year after taking up mountain biking to quit smoking. I was happy to have company in the misery. We rolled out into the rain. The course was the most beginner friendly I’ve ever ridden—buttery smooth, twisty singletrack through brilliantly popping foliage. There was one little kicker somewhere in the middle and then a climb up and over the back of the ski mountain before you bombed down the front side and through the start/finish area. I spent most of the ride encouraging and coaching the woman who was angry with herself for smoking all those years, but was really making remarkable progress in a short amount of time.
My hope was to make this a shakedown ride to be sure everything was dialed in. But Michigan mud—at least this Michigan mud—is a unique blend of sand, silt, and other gritty earth substances that pretty much stop most moving parts from running smoothly. My gears seemed to be rubbing an awful lot, but barrel adjusting did nothing and I decided to leave well enough alone, till morning anyway.
I didn’t race until noon 30, so the next day at 10 a.m. after the first wave of racers were off, I headed over to the venue to have one of the mechanics tweak whatever needed tweaking. With some help of a few volunteers we lubed the chain and twisted the barrel adjuster until it ran a bit smoother and rubbed a bit less in the higher gears. After some last minute prep, I lined up and, realizing that I was in the wrong gear for the fast downhill start, lifted the back wheel to click and spin it into a harder gear. The timer started counting down. Thirty seconds. My plan was to stay with Mackenzie as long as possible or until I could maybe make a move.
The whistle blew and we were off…except I wasn’t really off. My chain started jumping madly on the cassette while the field sped off. It was sort of like a bad dream. But I was wide awake. I had tested the gears under pressure on the high end, but not the low end…and now the problem had shifted there. My heart sank as I muttered many bad words. I briefly considered pulling the plug, but then I remembered Iron Cross 2009 and Ironman 2008 and a few other races where I had mechanical problems early on, but still pulled out a good result. Problem-solve this. Find a gear, any gear and make it work.
So I did, sort of. But it was too late to catch Mackenzie who was now out of my sight. So I settled in with a small group that included two other women and hammered the working gear as hard as I could. After a few minutes I glanced back. No one in sight. But the troubles were not over. Going into a strand of trees I needed to shift if I wanted to stay in contact. Click. The chain skipped and dumped, I clipped a tree, and went down as they slipped away.
I got up, spun the chain into a working gear, and chased, chased, chased. I caught them again. I looked down and saw an empty space where my Garmin had been. The day just keeps getting better, I thought. Guess you’re racing 100% by feel today.
Staying in the game makes you stronger than throwing in the towel. (John Bullington Photography)
A few miles later we hit the only real technical stretch of the day, two mud bogs that, if you were careful, you could pick your way through, which is exactly what I did to get away while the others dismounted or got hung up in the mud. I charged hard to gain a gap and going into the final climb I had a small one. My legs burned a little up the steep pitches but I was glad for the big gearing because it forced me to climb faster than I might if I were to spin. Okay. You’ve got this. Just keep your head and crank, I thought as I sailed down the hill and into my second lap.
The chain started jumping again as I charged through the transition. I twisted the barrel, praying for a little relief. Then I looked up and saw that I’d hit a dead end at a putting green. Oh dear Lord you’ve gone off course. Somehow I’d missed a course marker and had taken the wrong path off the road. I turned around, realizing I must’ve now lost my second-place slot and saw riders on a path across the field where I should have been. I bushwhacked my way over and once again gave chase. I started passing people down a stuttery descent when—thunk. My chain came completely off the front ring and was dangling around the crank.
“Okay my race is over,” I say out loud to nobody, as I stopped, thinking the chain was broken. When I saw it wasn’t broken I honestly very briefly considered breaking it myself so I could stop the madness of this day. You’re so close to the start. Just call it, I thought. Then I imagined how disappointed Tad the race director, who was so excited I came, would be. I thought of Rebecca Rusch and that book I wrote with her, which talks about never, ever quitting. Reba wouldn’t quit. You’re not quitting. I put the chain back on and chased some more.
At that point, the bike mechanical gods must have decided that I’d passed my test because, though the shifting was still far from perfect, I could find at least five or six of the 10 gears where it ran pretty smoothly. The sun started to peek through the heavy clouds and I pedaled with everything I had. I passed two women and suspected that I was sitting in third. Be smooth. Be fast. I put a song in my head and wove through the trees, actually really enjoying the chase.
Unbelievably (or not), I made the same course error going into the final lap, but caught it and bushwhacked my way back before I’d gone too far astray. Pedal, pedal, pedal, hammer, hammer, hammer. The miles ticked off. And as I passed the marker for three to go, I saw a rider with a ponytail up the trail. Holy s***, you caught her. There was second place. I clicked into a harder, working gear and said, “Hey there…coming by on the left,” pushing with all I had, hoping she wouldn’t be able to jump on my wheel.
It worked. Going into the final climb of the day, I had a gap. You did it. I was thrilled. It wasn’t the race I expected and certainly not the race I wanted, but it was one that I’ll never forget, and probably one I’ll be able to draw from again…I just hope it’s not too soon.
Epilogue: The shifting snafu was the result of some problems with the limit screws. After some postrace TLC, the bike worked flawlessly and I was able to pilot it for the win at Crystal Cross the next morning. And a trail angel found my Garmin and is shipping it back. All’s well that ends well, as they say.