I arrive at Angel Fire late Wednesday night after a long drive from Humboldt County, California. After a short night of sleep I head up the lift for my first course walk. My timing is interesting as I end up at the top of the trail at the same time as Jill Kintner and Neko Mulally; but like any racer, I take the opportunity to overhear world cup racers line choice.
The trail is loose and fast. The first section is a series of sharp rocks with a couple drops into an exposed hill with awkward rocky turns cut into them. Then back into the woods for more rocks. The trail then features a couple rollers into a small table that sends you into the high speed section where racers can top 50 mph on the dusty fire road. And then, very quickly I might add, the trail curves to the right where a wooden drop is built to bring riders into the gnarly rock garden. A 10-foot wide trail offers a massive variety of lines, but only a couple are really viable for speed. Once through the rocks, the remainder of the trail is loose dirt with windy turns, berms, senders, step-ups, step-downs, and that Angel Fire style of fun. The track ends in two high-speed berms that send you over two final tables into the finish line. Not a lot of pedaling, and a lot of speed.
The afternoon is scheduled for CAT 1 practice, so I head up the lift to find the beginning of my weekend of mechanicals. I’ve managed an unfortunate front flat and have to ride the lift to the bottom to change it out. While in the impressively nice park shop I familiarize myself with a mechanic named Clay who looks over my bike. I had noticed some grease on my stantion and figured it wouldn’t hurt to have him look over my trusty Kona Operator, as I am mechanically challenged. It’s mutually agreed that I need a fork rebuild, so after practice I agree to bring it by.
Take two. First practice run of the day. I am feeling good and loose, just trying to get a feel for the dirt. As I reach the bottom of the track I prepare myself to huck the trickiest step-down on the track: a road-gap straight out of a tight right hander to left hander that only allows for a couple quick pedal strokes. I take the corners all wrong but go for the jump anyway, shooting myself too far to the left, casing the landing, and shooting straight for a tree. I bail just in time and slam my head on the packed dirt. I determine I am no longer fit to practice and am clearly depleted and exhausted from the long traveling I did just hours before. After dropping off my bike at the shop we discover that I bent my axle, knocked my rear hub loose, and formed a gap in the dampener of my shock, so I take it by the Fox tent in hopes that they can service it. Both Fox and the shop assure me they’ll take care of it and to pick my bike up in the morning.
So Friday I find a buttery fork and a functioning shock. Feeling that it was behind me I head up to the top of the track again. Once again feeling loose and happy I go for another tricky gap. Cased the hardest yet. Immediately following my bike suddenly has an obvious rattle that I can hear and feel. When I get to the bottom of the run Clay (the mechanic) and I look it over for broken or loose components, bolts, links, and whatever else we can think of. We find nothing. So I practice the rest of the day with a loud, rickety bike while hoping it wont fall off in the middle of my run. But at the end of the day I can’t take it anymore and I leave it at the shop for a detailed inspection.
Saturday morning I return to Clay and he greets me with a smile saying “oh I can’t wait to tell you a story about customer service.” The newly formed pessimist in me assumes the worst until I walk back to the stand where my operator is hanging and notice a brand new Fox DHX RC4 where my old VAN RC used to sit. Fox saved the day, essentially.
And so, suddenly, it was the eve of my big race, and nothing seemed to be where I wanted it. Apart from my awesome new suspension set-up, my practice hadn’t gone very well. I wasn’t feeling fast enough, and I couldn’t hold the lines I wanted to. I decide not to think about it and to instead sneak into the lodge hot tub where I can relax. It is there that I meet the Shimano crew who I immediately hit it off with. I am also introduced to a couple female pros who share their beer with me as we share stories from practice and the general mischief of being a female downhiller. For dinner, myself and my travel partner join the three shimano dudes for dinner at a local bar where we find other racers and USA Cycling officials. The stress of my approaching race melts away as we get to know each other while simultaneously watching a tractor pull competition on tv. I fall asleep quickly.
Sunday has finally arrived. My bike is feeling its best yet and I am feeling oddly calm. Up the lift I go, thinking about my lines, my jumps, and my goals for the day. After my first practice run, I am beaming. It was so clean and so fun that I feel completely confident with my race run and decide not to head up the mountain for another run. There are a couple hours of waiting around, and then it’s finally time to jump on the chairlift and head to the start gate. I arrive 30 minutes before my start time so that I can get my brain in gear. My favorite thing about waiting for my race to start is talking to the other girls and sharing our passion for the sport. As there is small number of us, we really get to know each other and share genuine support and encouragement for one another’s race. Sure, they are my competition, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be my friends.
And then it’s 12:03 and I am in the start gate. My bike is in the right gear, my mind is clear, and I am ready. From the top to the bottom I nail every line and clear every jump. My lungs are burning, my legs are ready to fall off, and my bike is gliding over every rock. As I fly over the finish line jump I know I had a great run. I was the first seed, so I was first down the hill, and even though I had to wait for several women to come down the track before I could determine my results…I am confident that a 5:07 would put me on the top. After the last girl comes across the line, that belief is confirmed and suddenly I am a National Champion by 34 seconds.
I spend the rest of the day celebrating. And since hanging out at the Shimano tent with my new friends was clearly the best way to do that, it was there I lingered, beer in hand, wishing some of the pro women I met luck as well as getting to know them. After the pro race my friend and I pack up my Rav4, put his bike and my winning Operator on the rack, and head west.
I am not entirely sure what is ahead of me, but I am certain that I will be upgrading to pro and pursuing competitive downhill and enduro until my legs fall off. I began this sport only 10 months ago after buying the Kona Operator and cannot believe the success I have already found. Downhill and mountain biking in general is so much more than knobby tires and suspension. It is a lifestyle, a movement, and more than anything, a really great way to earn your beer.
Thank you to Revolution Bicylce Repair, Kona, Jimmy Smith (Kona), Shimano, Fox Racing Shocks, Angel Fire Bike Park Shop, and of course, Mom and Dad.