Like someone slamming down a stack of hardcover books on a quiet wooden library table, the bang inside my helmet when I hit the ground was startling.
I flung weightless over my handlebars, feet still clipped into pedals (I think), in that moment of clear thought where you’re just hanging there knowing that you are going to slam but being completely powerless to fight it, I had no idea the impact was going to be that hard. I guess I was expecting more of a slide than a direct impact to disburse some of the forces, but a direct slam it was. My last thought just before impact was, “damn, that was going well…no chance at podium now..“
If my lungs had teeth, they just got all kicked out.
As all of the wind exited my lungs, and I came to rest on my side but facing downhill, I had the memorable view of watching my bike, now 20 feet or so in the air, cartwheeling and ejecting anything that wasn’t bolted to it. Cartwheel. There goes a water bottle. Cartwheel. Oh there goes another one. Cartwheel. Buh-bye Garmin 510. Cartwheel. Ah crap, was that my saddle? Carthweel…rest. Oh man, why can’t I breathe?!
Getting the wind knocked out of your lungs is such an odd feeling. Lungs kind of in a shocked state grasping for air and kicked out of their rhythm, there’s nothing you can do but kind of wriggle around on the ground like a turtle on its shell which is pretty much what I proceeded to do. Heaving and gasping, trying to take stock of the situation. What the hell just happened?
I had one goal at this year’s Sea Otter Classic. Win. People would ask how I was feeling, and I would shrug it off saying that I was just racing to qualify for XC Nationals this year, but secretly I knew that I was riding pretty good lately yet not feeling overextended, so as the day got closer my goals changed from ‘Just hang around with the front group and see what happens’ to ‘let’s make some stuff happen and try to win’.
Looking at the list of pre-registered riders I knew my competition would be some of the best and one name in particular stood out: Bob McCarty from Florida. Where did I hear that name before? Oh yea, Bob is last year’s Sea Otter defending champion in my Cat 1 age category and more exciting to me, he is the current Master’s XC National Champion. So on the start line I made sure to line up right next to him. Bob’s wheel was the wheel I would follow, or if I was feeling good, maybe I could get Bob to chase mine for a bit.
The start was pretty mellow. 30-ish or so of us started mildly hard and settled into a small peloton working our way around the Laguna Seca race track until we hit the dirt. I hovered around, toward the back-end of top 10 or so until we turned off onto the dirt, when I moved up into the top 5, and then all of a sudden second wheel when we hit the first little climb.
Staying on the power, I found myself riding by the front rider so I just stayed on the gas. A hard pace, but not full attack mode and I glanced over my shoulder and was pleased to see the group already stringing out. The first rider right behind me 6 or 7 seconds back? Bob McCarty giving chase with maybe 3 others on his wheel, then already a decent gap to the rest.
Bob soon bridged up and we traded places a few times along wide fireroad of Lookout Rd, then descended down to a brief pavement section before the first serious climb of Trail 49. Bob took the lead here and I coasted behind his wheel saving energy, and right behind me was Scott Leland from Reno, NV, and one other who I didn’t know. Craning my neck behind us trying to see if anyone else was down the road and I saw no one. Perfect. Five miles in and we’re off the front I thought.
We hit the singletrack climb of Trail 49 together but at some point Bob and I lost contact with Scott and the other rider behind us. We just kept the pace steady and made our way around slower traffic from previous start groups as smoothly as we could but at the top of this climb, Bob swung by a group of lapped traffic and then the opportunity for me to get by got shut down in an instant. There was nothing I could do and just made my way around when I could.
From here on out, we were hitting huge amounts of slower lapped traffic from the earlier start groups. It was pretty frustrating but I figured it was something that all of us had to deal with so hopefully in the end things would even out as they should anyway. I went as fast as I could, but was mostly just biding my time and recovering looking for opportunities to get around traffic and seizing on them when I could. Every now and then I would catch sight of Bob’s jersey and I estimated his gap to be at about 30 seconds. I was happy with that.
Then I started taking risks. Gaps in traffic would open up long enough to where I could finally really pin it and started hitting corners and downhill stretches right on the limit trying to make up time. About half-way though the race now, solidly in 2nd place, I’m already thinking that if I don’t screw something up and ride within my limits I should have this spot nailed down. But of course, that’s not good enough….pin it, drop into the Goat Trail descent, stay off the brakes, make up time…..
After my breath came back and I realized that no body parts were broken (my ribs were throbbing, but not cracked as far as I could I tell), I grabbed my bike and aside from the broken off saddle everything else on it was in perfect working order. Wheels? Both true and no rotor rub. Rear derailleur? Intact and it works fine. Bar Controls? Not one lever was out-of-place.
So pleased that I at least wouldn’t be faced with an hour+ walk out of their and a DNF, I thought well, at least I can pedal this thing out even if I have to stand the whole way. I grabbed my broken off saddle and stuffed it in my jersey, and as I began to pedal, I began convincing myself that I should still give it my best. I was still sort of dusting off the cobwebs as I finished off the remainder of the Goat Trail descent, and sorting through my options: Time wasted in the crash: Maybe 5 minutes of stoppage time? Could just cruise it in: At least I’d get a finishing time and another USAC race under belt for Nationals. How many people passed me as I stood there? A bunch, but a lot were from other age categories that I had lapped. What place was I in? Hmmm, could I still be in the top 15? top 10? That’s not so bad. Can I really race the last 40-45 minutes with no saddle? Just don’t sit down you idiot, you can do this, you’re a single speeder and are used to standing.
The remainder of the race is a bit of a blur. It hurt pretty damn bad, I wanted and needed to sit on the flat sections where you need to just power down, but with nothing else to do I just dealt with it, and stood and smashed the pedals. Smash. Smash. Smash. Steadily reeling in all the lapped folks that I passed, then got passed by as I sat on the side of the trail with no air in my lungs, and then I began recognizing riders in my age category and I passed them too. I had no idea what place I was in, but I was still going to give this my best shot. My ribs were screaming in pain, but I figured they were just bruised and all would be fine..Smash. Smash. Smash.
Crossed the finish line exhausted and elated that I finished. Found out that Bob won by a few minutes and Scott Leland ended up 2nd. Me and my friends at the finish line inspected my helmet and realized that the impacted area was smashed and dented in, and looking that ribs on the inside, it was clear that THREE of them were cracked clean through. Like little earthquake fissures. Holy shit I guess that was a hard impact. I had no idea where I ended up, but I just wanted to get out of there really. Tired. A bit bloodied. And worried that once the endorphins wore off, my ribs and torso was REALLY going to start hurting.
Found out later during the drive home that I was able to claw my back into 5th place. I was stoked, but it is bittersweet.
Time to heal up with lots of trips to see Dr. Shigemoto who has been helping me out a ton this year (http://www.shigemotochiropractic.com/)
Next up is Bogg’s 8-Hour solo in 2 weeks……not sure about that at the moment……
There is an indie pop-punk band from my former hometown of Philadelphia, PA called Beach Slang that I have been listening to a ton lately. They came across my radar as I’ve listened to each of the band members respective previous bands going back 15 years or so now to my college days (edit: um, possibly 20 years….). So it was interesting to hear what these guys are up too lately and even with a grand total of just two 7″ releases to date, these eight songs are so have found regular rotation on my playlists lately with their raw un-produced sound, catchy hooks, and heart-on-sleeve lyrics.
So at races, I tend to always get a song stuck in my head that sort of becomes my mantra during the race and this year’s version of the Napa Valley Dirt Classic was no different. These songs serve the conflicting roles of both calming my nerves and also firing up and motivating me. The song for me for this year was Beach Slang’s “Punk or Lust” off of their Who Could Ever Want Anything so Broken 7″.
Specifically, there is an infectious anthemic, line at the 1 minute mark that goes: “THIS MACHINE. LET IT BLEED. LET IT EXPLODE!”.
(link directly to lyric at 1 minute mark)
Anyway, having a mantra of “This machine. Let it bleed. Let it explode” sung in my head over and over again may have been a poor choice for this race as I have suffered extremely bad luck each and every time I have done this race. For example, let’s look at my Strava titles for all of the Napa Valley races I’ve ever done:
2011 – “NVDC MTB Race – Made Wrong Turn, Rode in Circles, Doubled Back a Few Miles UGH”
(2012 – skipped race, was probably still lost riding in circles)
2013 – “NVDC MTB Race – 2nd Pro SS (Broken Chain Cost Me First UGH)”
2014 – “NVDC MTB Race – Mechanicals and Speeding Tickets, Not My Day UGH”
2015 – “Napa Valley Mechanical Classic UGH”
So each time I have done this race, I have had a mechanical that negatively impacted my race, or even when I didn’t have a mechanical, I made a wrong turn and got lost…..
Bit of a broken record. UGH.
So singing “This Machine. Let it Bleed. Let it Explode!”….was a great mantra to shout it my head as the gun went off and our Cat 1 class hit the gas up the start line pavement and I got impatient as no one out of our group of 40 or so REALLY seemed to want to hit it so I exploded to the front, took the holeshot, and led the charge onto the dirt and up the first climb stretching the field out until the mandatory run-up climb where I slowed then and allowed for a group of 6 or 7 of us to come back together so I had other riders to work with through the next flat and fast sections.
“This Machine. Let it Bleed. Let it EXPLODE!”…was a great anthem to shout at myself as our group bled watts, poured sweat, and shed a few more riders off our backs and we were down to myself, Curtis Smith from BP, Cole Davis from Limitless Cycling/Folsom Bike, and two other riders that I did not know. I believe just Curtis and myself were in the same Cat 1 35-44 age group, so I was stoked that we were leaving others in our wake and so I just kept on shouting…..
“This Machine. Let it Bleed. Let it EXPLODE!”….and kept pushing. kept smashing as my quads flared in pain soaring up hills and singletrack to stay with the group, and push the pace over the whoops section and through all the super fun shady leafy singletrack on this classic MTB’ers course.
“This Machine. Let it Bleed. Let it EXPLODE!”….while on the edge of control, drifting turns fast with tires hooking up in just the last seconds before disaster. Hurting, but feeling good knowing that everyone else here is hurting too…we’re in this together. Smash, smash, smash.
“This Machine. Let it Bleed. Let it……”….ah #$@! it DID explode! On a choppy high speed straightway, about an hour into the race, I was downshifting and smashing pedals chasing Curtis’s wheel when the chain went flying off.
“This Machine…”…..”it is bleeding, it has exploded” I said to myself as I looked closer and noticed that the chain was not just off, but it was kinked 4x’s around itself and the derailleur was out of whack.
“This damn machine”, I quietly muttered to myself as I burnt 7 – 8 minutes or so un-kinking, re-kinking, and finally untangling for good the chain and then got the derailleur back in line and in functioning order. I’m not sure how many people passed me by on the trail. A lot. Curtis would go on to win our age category and Cole just edged him up putting up the fastest Cat 1 time of the day.
So for my next mantra, the Beach Slang song stuck in my head, for the remainder of my “race” was:
“This city sleeps in a pattern of broken junk, but nights like this, it don’t matter. All this dirty fun”
(link directly to lyric at 20 second mark)
Roughly translated paraphrased and interpreted into: “These races sleep in a pattern of broken junk, but rides like this, it don’t matter. All this is just dirty fun”
Ended up 9th out of 18th after all of that.
Next up, Sea Otter Classic.
EDIT: Bonus, more Beach Slang tunes. Intimate acoustic set via NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts: