I did my first mountain bike race on Saturday. It was only the 2nd time I'd ever ridden my new mountain bike, Montana, and only the 10th time ever that I'd ridden a mountain bike. Luckily, I was too naive to be scared. I had no idea what I was in for. I had first agree to just go and support Blake, who rides the 100k annually. When he told me there was a shorter "fun" ride, I quickly piped up, "I want to do the shorter ride!" At first, he was very enthusiastic, saying how fun it would be if we both shared the experience together. As he studied the course, he furrowed his brow, realizing how hilly, difficult, and technical it was. He warned me, suggesting maybe I opt out and try again after I had more rides under my belt. I was stubborn, and refused to be steered off course. I was going to do it.
"Some of the hills are really steep. I know you don't like downhills, and this course has some nasty downhills," he warned.
"I'll can do it! And if it's too hard, I'll just walk," I retorted.
He sighed and shut his mouth. When he told his friends (mostly pros) that I was going to do the fun ride, their response was, "The fun ride is not fun."
I shrugged, protected by my innocence and stupidity. I was undeterred. The other riders were nervous. I was asked many times if I was ready. I couldn't figure out what the big deal was. Afterall, it was just a "fun ride", right?
Saturday morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn. Nervousness started to seep in for the first time. As we lined up at the start, I wondered: What have I gotten myself into?
The 100k riders took off, including Blake, and I was left alone with the 65k riders, one of the only females, and the only American. I suddenly felt very lonely.
We began riding, and, almost immediately, a young woman rode up next to me and introduced herself as Claudia. Relief washed over me. Her English was much better than my Spanish, and she clearly shared my desire for companionship on the ride. Although she claimed to be a beginner mountain biker, she was much stronger than me and started to zip off ahead as we reached the beginning of the first climb. I let her go, knowing this climb was going to last for about 8 miles. I watched her blue jersey become smaller and smaller, ever so slowly in the distance.
The going was slow but I was in good spirits. Eventually, the terrain steepened and became sandy and slushy. My wheels slipped and wobbled. This seemed like a good excuse to get off and walk. I had always thought the climbs on the road bike could be steep. Mountain biking climbs make the hills I've climbed on the road bike laughable. In mountain biking, apparently, it's not a hill unless it's over 20% and you have to lean all your weight over the front wheel to keep it from popping up. Ridunkulous. I pushed Montana ahead of me and slogged up the hill on foot. I'm not entirely sure this was much easier. The hill was so steep, its shadow cast me in darkness, as if I was walking up a skyscraper. Mountain bikers' favorite superhero must be Spiderman.
A cyclist rolled down the hill in the opposite direction. I looked at him in confusion. The fact that he had a familiar face didn't help my mental fog. My face suddenly broke into a wide grin. It was Blake's friend, Beto, whom I'd met the night before. He gave me some encouraging words and asked how I was doing. All of a sudden, all doubt was washed away. Infused with energy and renewed good spirits, I crested the first hill at mile 10. Although it had taken me an hour and a half to go 10 miles, I was sure the rest would be easier. Afterall, everyone had said the first climb was the toughest.
Then, I started the descent. Recent rains had cut deep rivets and trenches across the trail. Not to mention the hill was as steep as the one I had just climbed up. Only it was down. I took several deep breaths and tried to talk myself down, crouching into the descent position, weight back, chest down. Several nasty bumps, hops and skips later, combined with the sickening feeling in my gut that I was careening out of control, I slowly screeched to a halt and dismounted. Grumbling, I walked down the rest of the hill. I was not happy. I hate not doing something because I'm scared. I tried several different times to get back on the bike and resume course down the hill but to no avail. Unfortunately, once off the bike on a steep grade (up or down), it's difficult to get started again. Momentum and speed help stabilize the bike more than I had realized.
I finally reached the bottom of the hill, which matched my low morale. I looked desperately for a rock to crawl under and hide. How was I ever going to finish this thing? Was I going to be able to even finish? I remembered one of Blake's friends encouraging me at the start: "It will be hard out there. No matter what, you get to the finish, okay?"
I had looked at him in surprise, replying, "Of course." Now I knew what he had meant. It wasn't just me. This course was tough. I ignored the thoughts of despair floating around my head (a.k.a. "negativity drills") and, as I've done so many times before, kept on going despite myself.
The hillsides were gorgeous and serene. Unfortunately, not being familiar with the course (I hadn't even studied it on-line), I felt desolate and alone. There was a fork in the trail. I couldn't see another rider in front or behind me. Which way should I go? Suddenly, a rider appeared and zoomed down the trail to the left. The more technical, dangerous trail, of course. The timing was perfect as I had just turned the wrong way. I turned back and tried to follow, pulling up short in front of a sudden, enormous sink hole. Gulp. Cautiously, I walked through the obstacle, one of many.
The trail flattened out and became a well-groome dirt road. I breathed a sigh of relief. This I could ride! I flew through farmland, vineyards and small towns. It was like being transported back in time. A small white church dotted the horizon. Cows, horses, and donkeys grazed aimlessly throughout the countryside. I swerved around a few Holsteins and dodged a cocky rooster, strutting across my path.
Soon after, I reached another steep descent. The trail was sandy and soft as well as narrow, with several sharp turns. To make matters worse, the drop off on one side was steep and unforgiving. I tried, again, to urge Montana down the hill but he balked repeatedly. Disgruntled, yet again, I got off and walked down the entire dang thing. For a mountain bike race, I certainly was doing a lot of walking. I had to jump to the side of the trail several times to let other cyclists pass by. Watching them carelessly bounce and skid down the trail, millimeters from crashing or flying off the mountainside did little to boost my confidence or inspire me to follow suit. In fact, after watching them, trying helplessly to glean some last-minute tips from more accomplished riders, did nothing more than assuage my bruised ego and make me feel completely justified in walking. No way was I going to do that! Not today, at least.
Finally, I reached the bottom of the hill. I prayed that had been the nasty descent Blake had warned me about. However, I wasn't sure. What if it wasn't? I wasn't sure I could handle another nasty descent. As I rode easily through some more farmland, dirt roads, and beautiful orchards, I started to relax. Weaving through the bones of a massive bovine skeleton, complete with an intact skull picked clean, about 1/4 mile up the trail, however, I crossed my fingers and gulped. I hoped it wasn't an omen.
Soon, I was crossing some rocky creekbeds. Grumbling, I got off and walked. And then another. And another. Ugh. Are you kidding me? Suddenly, I was sick of walking. No more! I got on Montana, and with a burst of anger, fled through several creekbeds and deep patches of sand. Suddenly, I was laughing. I couldn't believe it had been that easy! Those loose rocks and slippery expanses of sand had seemed impossible to ride only moments before. Maybe I could finish this thing afterall.
I reached an aid station and stopped to refuel. I eagerly gulped down several orange slices and small, chocolate-flavored bars, reminiscent of Cliff bars. Quite tasty. I also slurped down several cups of some sort of carbonated soda/energy drink. Even though I had been eating and drinking, I didn't realized how famished I'd become. All of a sudden, everything was right in the world again. I zipped down the road with renewed energy. It was as if someone had brightend the color and wiped my lenses clean.
Until the climbing began. Again. No more, please. Uncle! I pleaded. My legs burned with lactic acid. Stubbornly, I climbed despite my quads protest. I focused on my form, breathing forcibly as I lowered my chest to the handlebars. My butt was so forward on the seat, I could feel the nose poking my tailbone. Fatiuged, I pedaled as slowly as I could, and surpisingly, discovered I could make my way to the top of the hill using this tactic.
All of a sudden, I was careening down the final descent. I knew I was close. My GPS read 38 miles. I could see the sprawling town of Ensenada rapidly approaching in the distance. Confidence building, I rode every hill, up or down, every rock, every bit of sand, refusing to get off and walk. I could do this. I was going to finish. I reached the dry wash that runs into town, the final stretch, and took off as fast as I could, zipping through shallow creeks and muddy patches. Droplets of muck splattered my face and legs. I started purposely careening through the mud and water like a kid splashing in puddles after a rain.
And then, I was at the finish, exhausted and exuberant. I had done it! My first mountain bike ride/race. 65km on a very difficult course, in another country no less. Tired, exhausted, and completely satisfied. Muy contento!
--The mariachi singers at the post-ride party. They were absolutely amazing. They actually did a stand-up job playing all sorts of rock. Here they are playing Pink Floyd!
--Our muddy and tired steeds, racked up and ready to go home. What a ride!