Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Piney Hills Classic MTB Race as my final exam

The race season is finally over. I am physically and mentally ready for some rest. Before I shut down, I thought I would first share my thoughts on the end of the season and its two final INCREDIBLE races. Because of my tendency to ramble and digress, I will send it to you in two parts. First, the Piney Hills Classic, and then, the 24 Hours of Clear Springs.

The first race was the Piney Hills Classic in Ruston, La. This is usually a huge race and one that every serious mountain bike racer in Baton Rouge wants to do well at. It is part of the Texas Fall Series, the last race of USA Cycling's National cross country calendar, and the last race of the American Mountain Bike Challenge (AMBC) calendar. That's a lot of weight for one race. . . and a lot of pressure for one racer.

I look back on this season and see all of my races as a series of tests, with Bump and Grind at Oak Mountain being my mid-term, and the Piney Hills Classic as my final exam. This was the test I felt I had to pass to truly feel ready to graduate from the Sport (Cat 2) class to the Expert (Cat 1) class.

The PHC is a stage race consisting of three races, a time trial, a short track race, and a cross country race. Sport racers have to only do the time trial and the cross country.

The time trial was basically 12 minutes of trying my absolute hardest to see if I could make my heart explode. It felt as though I surely had a shot. The race went very well with the exception of my one crash. I entered a wide, easy turn with a little too much speed for the loose over hard-pack trail conditions, completely lost traction, and hit the ground. I bet I have never gotten up faster from a wreck. My chain dropped into granny gear and my derailleur was a little sluggish to resolve that problem afterwards, but I lost very little time. Unfortunately, very little time is all it takes to drop spots quickly in a 3 mile race. I got the word later that night from a friend that I finished that race in 3rd place. Unbelievable! I realized that I might actually have a chance with the cross country race the next day. Nice thoughts to fall asleep to.

On the morning of the cross country race, I wondered if I would even know anyone on the starting line. I knew that most of the guys I've made friends with in the South Central Regional Series were going to absent, and I have never raced in Texas before, so I didn't think I would. Hello, Eric Spina. Apparently, he wants to beat me real bad. He did tell me "the end of the season." I assumed he meant the SCRCS season, but there he was, ready to race. So. . . Let's race.

The Texas series lines up the racers with the top ten guys on the front row, everyone else falling in behind them. This makes it hard to get a fair shot at good starting position. I lined up behind someone I hoped would be as fast as they looked, hoping to help my chances of getting get a somewhat decent start. We were off, and in very short distance, I was in third place. Perfect. After the short sprint from the line, I stayed as close as possible to the second place guy's wheel until we reached the singletrack, and hoped a group of riders wouldn't blow by us beforehand. We made it to the tighter trail in the same position. There was another guy behind me who stayed close for a while, but dropped off early. And then, there were three.

The pace we were going was a very hard pace, but it felt like any other race, and I figured that we would all settle down soon enough. I noticed the two guys in front of me look back at me and figured they were probably wondering who I was. I answered their quizzical faces with a reply of "Y'all are doing great. Keep it up." The three of us stayed together until a section of trail called Tomac separated the first place guy (Clint Fontenot) from his bike. Tomac can be described as sort of a mini ski jump. You can get all the air you would ever need on a cross country race bike at the bottom of the steep, straight hill with the LAUNCH at the bottom. The problem is that you have to land in time to make about a ninety degree turn back into the tight woods. The loose over hard-pack worked in my favor this time and Clint slid out trying to turn. He was back on his feet before we even passed him completely, but I hoped we could at least put a small gap on him before he recovered from his spill. And then, there were two.

It was not long at all after Clint fell, that I realized his replacement was not doing the same job as Clint was doing. He was slowing way down. He told me that he was trying to keep up the pace, but I was worried that Clint would catch back on quickly and wanted to be gone before that happened. I went around with an "on your left, thank you," quickly adding, " I might regret it later." With that, I was off in a hurry wondering how I managed to pull this off so soon. And then, there was one.

Off the front and alone is as hard on you as being behind in a race. You have to try to maintain a speed that will allow you to stay in the lead, without going so hard that you blow up and get passed by everyone. I had help maintaining a pace by the quick glimpses of Clint I kept getting behind me when I could look back, or on switchbacks. He was close, and we both knew it. What he didn't know was that my legs were starting to hurt. The race wasn't even halfway through, and I felt that crampy feeling creeping into my legs again. Please, no. I've been to this point so many times this year that I know that I can ride for a long time feeling like I felt. The problem is I also know that I can only do so by riding a very fine line with my power. If I start pushing too hard, I'll be standing next to my bike trying to get my legs to bend again.

I stayed ahead of Clint for probably what would amount to a full lap, or ten miles, even with my aching legs. I always tell myself that it is likely that the other racers are hurting just as bad as I am. It helps until they blow by you leaving you in the dust. When Clint passed, I yelled to him, "Great Racing." He yelled back, "Dude, you're a beast." I wasn't sure if he was talking about my riding or my scary looking chicken legs, but I replied assuming he meant the former with "You're passing me!" I tried to keep him close, but just couldn't do it. I told myself that I couldn't ride his pace for the rest of the race without facing the very real threat of significant cramping. That was at least my way of rationalizing my being DROPPED. And then, there were . . . okay I'm now bored with this, and besides I don't even know how to say it. Maybe, and then there were two, separated by a gap filled with settling dust? I don't know.

I ended up riding the rest of the race hoping that I could keep the rest of the field behind me and praying that I might see Clint again. My hopes came true but you don't always get what you pray for, right?

In the end, I did manage to hold off the pack and passed my final exam with a very hard 2nd place finish. I guess that means that I am ready to move into the Expert ranks, right? Only time will tell the answer to that, but I can say with certainty that this season was a GREAT learning experience. I can also say with certainty that my Sport "teachers" are ready for me to get the hell out of their class. Some things never change.

Jason Betz

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