“…at last the Lake burst upon us—a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! … As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” So said Mark Twain of the great Lake Tahoe in 1871. The view is no less spectacular nearly a century-and-a-half later, though viewed after a 24-mile and 4,000 vertical foot climb in the middle of a marathon mountain bike race, my thoughts toward it were a bit glazed. We were atop those snow-clad (yes, still, in late June) mountain peaks aloft much higher than the mighty lake, and we were only half-way done!
We had been climbing into the thin air for nearly two hours, a lead group of a dozen or so, cresting at nearly 9,000 feet. Carson City, where we had started, felt very far away. My body, and maybe my constitution, had succumbed to Boyle’s Law, and my heart had somehow floated into my skull and was thudding like a metronome. I focused on calming down, breathing, willing the power to come back into the legs. The lake below was big and blue and the view of the mountains made me feel better, like summit fever. This was a contrast to the loud, crowded World Cup. Now I was alone and it was quiet but for my breathing and my tires in the sandy dirt, the other spandex-clad figures lurching up the hill in front of me, getting smaller. I wished I was smaller and that I could dash up this hill a bit more efficiently. That extra muscle I’d put on for sprinting through short-format races wasn’t helping my cause here. I was used to 800 meters and this was the 10,000. Bike, body and spirit came alive again when the trail turned down hill, but my temporary lapse in momentum had already cost me a top result. I charged through the rest of the day solo to finish seventh. A second-tier result for a first-class race.
We had just finished the first-ever Carson City Off Road, the conclusion of the 2016 Epic Rides trilogy, and the final stop on a week’s tour through Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. An increasing number of elite riders and sponsors have put this series (and its $100,000 purse!) at the top of their list – and for good reason. The air is fresh. There is a sense of enthusiasm from the promoters, athletes, sponsors, hosts and fans alike. The level of buy-in from everyone is remarkable. These events are about a good, hard ride in a beautiful place, based in a nice town with good food, beer and music. They are the events that you put on the calendar over a year in advance, and pack up the whole family and friends to take part. The pay is good if you are really fast, and the atmosphere is rewarding no matter how you do. We collected our commemorative railroad spikes and wedged our tired legs and dusty equipment back into the van.
A week before…
Any time I catch a sweet alpine scent in the air, I’m reminded of racing at Mt. Hood SkiBowl, and any time I think of SkiBowl, I think of growing up racing in Oregon: old-school cross country, long climbs and fast trails twisting through the rhododendron, aspiring to be like those fast dudes, Tonkin, Wicks, Decker, Trebon, becoming part of a tribe. The last time I had raced here I was in high school, maybe just graduated, a shop-team rider with open-ended aspirations for racing bikes and going to college, yet no concept for returning to this starting line after a journey as great as these last thirteen years.
Thanks to a last-minute organization effort Kona alum Erik Tonkin and his crew at Sellwood Cycles, here we were, most of us anyway, back at SkiBowl for an unofficial homecoming race after nearly 50-years combined experiences shared between us Kona alums – -Tonkin, Wicks, Babcock, myself, not to mention many other familiar old faces. Even my dad was still racing, and now my wife was here, too, lined up with all of us as we received our final directions. I felt young and old at the same time. We ripped out of the parking lot and into a little time capsule for the next two and a half hours. The trails were just as I remembered them. I still knew all of the little roots and corners. As the small field spread out, Wicks and I cruised along the old trails and I wondered how our 18-year-old selves would have done against our 30-something-old selves. We had three laps of varying length, 30 miles total, and I could have been any age in between 1998 and 2016. This was the first place where I learned to get in the zone, where grinding up a big climb I had those first daydreams, imagining myself snatching that big performance as some big pro in a big race. This was the feeling I’d brought with me around the world and it still felt the same here, but now I’d been there and back again. It was a special day. The reminiscing over cold beers after the race was priceless.
Our journey continued south to Bend, OR for the 7th annual Blitz, an invite-only dash for cash from the hinterlands of Mt. Bachelor down into town. The Blitz is a major highlight for the local riding community and draws a big crowd at the finish line stunt at Tetherow Golf Course. Eric Eastland and his All Access stage company put on the event. They’re the same group that does the stage setup for the Superbowl Halftime show, so for one evening out of the year, a handful of us mountain bikers get to feel like we’re part of some primetime entertainment. It’s legit, and so are the cash prizes and the party. I donned my glow-in-the-dark Kona chrome shorts, survived some tangled wheels into the local line, breathed some dust, and came away with a good paycheck and a big growler of Deschutes beer. The only bummer was that a rainstorm blew in just in time for the after-party and the organizers decided to cancel the marquis arm wrestling contest. Instead of blowing out our shoulders, the $2k up for grabs to the strongest man and woman was donated to the local trail organization, and we all cleaned up early and prepared for the final leg of the journey to Carson City, Nevada.