Keep calm and ride on. That is what I learned at the Big Mountain Enduro race in Crested Butte this weekend. There are so many aspects to racing enduro at a high level and I am starting to see how important the mental side is. Just when I thought I was getting a grasp on it, the wet, muddy, slippery conditions of the high alpine race in Colorado threw me a curveball.
The weekend started as usual with frantic pre-riding of as many stages as I could without totally wasting myself. The race was going to be over three days, the first two being big backcountry rides with lots of elevation and the last day being mostly bike parking. With one day to preride, I had no way of riding everything. So I picked one backcountry stage I hadn’t ridden, hiked up, rode down, and then headed to the bike park for a few laps.
It was very apparent that the area had been getting a lot of rain; water was flowing everywhere, dirt was heroic, and there were mud puddles a plenty. One of the bike park stages, Captain Jack, had a lot of steep off-camber technical segments covered in rocks and roots. While it was riding great the day before the start of the race, we all new if the weather acted up before Sunday, when we were to race that stage, it would turn into a treacherous mess.
The weather forecast looked iffy for Friday but after that it would clear up. Sure enough it rained all night and into Friday morning and even though it looked like it might clear the race promoter cancel the racing for the day. The roads would have been too slick for the shuttles and emergency vehicles had they been needed. Now we were down to two days of racing.
Saturday was an early wake up call. The shuttles left at seven to take us into the mountains and while clouds were looming it looked like we might stay dry. It look about two hours of riding and hiking to get the top of the first stage and it had started raining. That day I played my mental game like I would normally; ride smooth, ride safe, and pedal hard, but not too hard. The trails were now even more sloppy and slick than the last time I had ridden them so I need to ride especially smooth and safe. And it worked like a charm. I finished the day third overall feeling pretty good about holding onto that through the next and final day.
I’ve been working on my mental game for these kinds of races and feel like I am getting the hang of it. Riding conservatively doesn’t feel fast in the moment but I am always surprised to see it is actually the opposite. Honing in on that elusive speed zone has been tough but that makes it feel even more rewarding to find.
Picking up where I left off, Sunday’s race started out great. It was continuing to rain through the weekend and the trails were in all time sloppy condition. Slipping and sliding my way down trail 403 was possibly the most fun I have had on my bike all year and when you have that much fun racing, it usually mean you went fast. I had the third fastest time on that stage and put some more time into the guys behind me. Now time for the bike park.
At the top of the lift, about to start the first bike park stage, I realized I had a problem with my shock. With no way to fix it there, I raced it down, nearly escaping death more than once. Safely at the bottom, I borrow a wrench to get my shock off, played around with it and found a temporary fix. Whew, dodged that bullet! But now would I be able to dodge the bullet that is Captain Jack in maybe the worst condition imaginable?
It wasn’t a matter of if but when my bike would slip out from under me faster than I could comprehend. Luckily everyone was in the same boat so it wasn’t too much to worry about; just get up and keep going. I made it through the first two obstacles and was feeling pretty good but I knew the hardest was still to come; an off camber shoot with diagonal roots and a bit of a turn at the bottom. I decided to take what I though was the safest line which was staying low to avoid the roots but it set you up worse for the corner. I made it down the shoot but slid out in the corner as expected. And then I kept sliding. And sliding. I was off the trail now and sliding down the side of the hill.
When I stopped sliding I was probably 20 feet below the trail and it was so slick I could hardly stand up. I was in a panic and started trying to make my way back up the hill. I was clawing at the ground trying to get purchase on anything while also holding onto my bike trying to drag it up with me. One step forward two steps back. I tried pulling myself up by grabbing onto tree branches with no success. The ground was like ice and my bike pulling me down. After a minute or two of frantic flailing I somehow managed to get back up to the trail and finished the stage.
The race was over for me at that point. I had lost an enormous amount of time and was mentally defeated. I finished the last stage in a daze; frustrated, angry, and unmotivated. I lost over a minute and dropped back to 9th place overall.
How could this happen to me? How did everyone else make it through there without loosing so much time? I had stayed so calm up till the point of getting sucked into the mud vortex and then lost it. I was so flustered I could not see all the quick easy solutions to getting myself out of there. Obviously hindsight is twenty twenty, but had I kept my cool I could have salvaged a top five finish.
All in all the weekend was amazing. I rode some of the best trails in Colorado with a bunch of awesome people. The conditions made for exciting racing and I came away with a top ten finish. But to be so close to the top three and lose it because of a silly mental mistake is something that will stick with me. When everything is going right it is hard to imagine things going wrong and that is what I need to be more prepared for. I can promise you I won’t let that happen again!”