Congratulations to Folsom Bike Elite MTB Team Member Tofor Lewis, who recently placed first in the Cat 1 18 & Under category at the 2014 Napa Valley Dirt Classic MTB Race.
In addition to the Cat 1 18 & Under victory, Tofor also posted the fastest time from ANY Cat 1 age group. Congratulations Tofor!
For the past five years or so, I’ve primarily been a singlespeed mountain bike racer. This year however, with the addition of a Giant Anthem X Advanced 29’er into my stable, I consciously made the switch to riding and racing gears. I figured it would be a nice break from singlespeeding for so long, and would also help to strengthen up several riding and racing weaknesses that I’ve developed over the years by having such a singular focus for so long (pun intended).
That being said, there are still a few events on the NorCal race calendar that I wanted to race singlespeed. The upcoming Sea Otter Classic is one as it is a massive challenge on the one speed with a gnarly course of 40 miles and about 7,000 feet of climbing. And with that in mind, I recently converted a Giant XTC Composite 29’er hardtail over to a singlespeed with my eyes on using it for Sea Otter.
Sea Otter is coming up extremely fast though (4 days from now!), and I realized that after just recently converting the XTC over to a one speed, I had better get a shakedown race on it in order to get more comfortable on that frame, shake out any issues there might be with using a chain tensioner, and just get used to racing a one speed again after my short break (I hadn’t touched a singlespeed bike since cyclocross season ended in December). So with this in mind, I thought it would wise to race the one speed XTC this weekend at the Napa Valley Dirt Classic.
The Napa Valley Dirt Classic course is unique in that all the different racing categories, from Pro on through to Beginner, all race the same course; the same single lap; the same distance. It’s a bit of a sprint-fest as it’s only about 19 miles in length with the fastest times ending up in the 1 hr 20 min to 1 hr 30 minute range, but it’s extremely fun with a lot of variety along the way from extremely steep and hard climbs to wide open flat passing areas, and lots of forested swooping fast singletrack in between.
The Pro Singlespeed category is in the first start wave along with geared Pro’s and we had a really deep field. The Cat 1 Singlespeed category starts in this wave as well, so at the start it was difficult to tell exactly who was in the Pro SS field and who was in Cat 1. Singlespeeders on the line that I recognized and knew were racing Pro were: my friend Mason Marlow from LeadOut Racing, Chuck Ross from Sert-Sho Air, and Cesar Chavez and Tim Cannard from Ibis / Buy-Cell. There were a few other singlespeeders but I couldn’t see their number plates to see if they were racing Cat 1 or Pro or not.
The start at NVDC is always a little nerve wracking as it is going to be HARD from the gun. It’s a slight uphill start on pavement for a few hundred yards before narrowing down to singletrack, and then a tough fireroad climb that has a mandatory dismount for an extremely steep section that is unrideable so it becomes a quick run-up, then it’s a lot of extremely fast full-throttle dirt service roads as we charge into the singletrack in the forest.
The start gun pops and sure enough, the field explodes hard and fast. I was in the 2nd row next to my team mate Jared Kessler who was racing his Anthem and directly behind Kona Pro, Barry Wicks. I lined up behind Barry knowing that he would accelerate quickly hopefully giving me a clearshot towards the front. Barry did as I suspected, but I botched my start and quickly found myself at the rear of the pack as we sprinted up the pavement. I recovered a bit, accelerated, and made up some ground as we entered the singletrack, and then I really made a surge to the front on the service road climb approaching the run-up. As we hit the run-up, I was in 7th position…and I could tell there were no other singlespeeders in front of me.
We all hopped on our bikes after the run-up, and I dug deep to match the group’s acceleration as I knew if I lost their wheels I would be dead in the water. There is only so fast I can spin my one speed (I choose to run a 36×19 gear), so my goal was to hold on to the wheels of the lead group as long as I possibly could. Luckily for me, I was able to hold them for quite a ways to just past the end of the airstrip on our left..after that the track turns slightly downhill, and I became unattached from the lead group. I was still in 7th overall and in the lead group was Jared Kessler, Barry Wicks, Jim Hewett, Michael Hosey, and a few others I couldn’t quite make out….I was happy to stay with them as long as I could, but had to back off the pace to recover a bit and see if I could find some other wheels to grab onto as we approached the tight confines of the forest.
Soon enough, I was able to recover, and grab on to wheel of Riley Howard as he came cruising by. He was charging pretty good and I was able to stay with him and shout up a few times apologizing for not being able to take a turn pulling as I was totally spun out (hopefully he heard me). We went into the famed series of 3 steep rollers, collectively known as the “whoop section” together and I successfully made it up and over the first one, but on the second one, I hit some rocks and my chain got bounced off the front chainring. So I had to stop, dismount, stick it back on, and getting rolling again. Lost some time, but maybe more importantly lost the wheel of Riley who was charging pretty good and would have been an excellent carrot for me to chase through the forest.
After losing Riley, I raced along with Greg Golet from Chico and one other rider for several miles of single track. We rolled through the flume section and I actually dropped my chain again in this part. Again, I was able to stop and stick it back on, but man I was getting frustrated thinking about the time that I was losing and I was getting worried that it was going to keep happening.
The middle section of the race went fairly smooth as I tried to recall the single speeding technique of standing and charging hard into every hill and then laying off the brakes everywhere else to conserve momentum. I was approaching the bottom of the major obstacle of the day…the heinous climb known as “The Wall”….when I dropped my chain for a 3rd time in the rutted out descent leading into the Wall. Cursing loudly, I stopped for a 3rd time, and luckily was able to get the chain back on again without much drama, but again by doing so I lost the wheels of the other riders that I was chasing and had to try and make up time.
I finally hit the “The Wall” and did everything in my power to get up this thing as quickly as possible. I knew my gear choice wouldn’t allow me to ride every section of it, so I ran some, walked some, rode some, ran some more, and began the dance of dismounting and remounting and running and riding as smoothly as possible. It was at this point, knowing that there were only a few miles left in the race, I began to think that I could actually win this thing and each time I would dismount to run a section I would glance over my shoulder to look for any other singlespeeders but never caught a glimpse of anyone.
I was beginning to feel twinges of cramps in my calves and one of my quads during the last mile or two into the finish, but I tried to keep a smooth cadence and keep the speed up to try and hold onto my position….it’s very easy to become complacent when you’ve been ahead for an entire race, then get nipped near the end by a charging, motivated racer so I dug deep to keep my speed up.
I flowed down the steep section that we used as our run-up at the beginning of the race (actually, “bounced down” is probably more accurate as I came in way too hot for having a rigid fork on the front), and accelerated the last downhill fireroad glancing over my shoulder to check for anyone gaining on me and I still couldn’t see anyone…..I was half a mile away from the finish, with no more climbs, or tricky technical sections to bounce my chain off and it was at this point when I began tasting the win!! Wohoo!
So I flew through the very last singletrack piece and all I had left was a sprint across a short grass field, to the oval track that the race finishes on and I would be done. In my mind, I totally had this won at this point… I was certain that no one was going to catch me now with such a short distance to go.
But then, disaster struck…..
As I bounced down the last bit of singletrack and onto the grassy field before the oval track, my chain bounced off AGAIN!!! NOOOOOO!!!!! Trying to stay calm I told myself that I could quickly get it back on just like the other three times it happened. As calm as I tried to stay however, I couldn’t help but keep losing concentration as other riders exited the singletrack and began passing me….I’d keep checking their drivetrains, “ok that’s a geared guy, and another one, that guy has gears too…..get this chain back on!!! NOW!”
So I kept fiddling with the chain and something wasn’t quite right, it wasn’t going on nearly as easily as the other times, and then I looked closer and noticed that it was completely mangled. Not only did it bounce off from the front chainring, but it completely dislodged and unwrapped itself from the tensioner and twisted around itself several times. If I had been on a leisurely trail ride and this had happened, it would have been no big deal to take the time to fix, but in the heat of battle, the end of the race, the moment of freaking truth right here! where I was in great danger of losing the race right at the worst moment, that I decided I better start running….I only had a few hundred yards to go!!!
So I started sprinting as fast as I could. I used to run years ago when I played soccer, and ran marathons, but I haven’t run in like 6 years and man this hurt! My philosophy now is only run when being chased and holy crap I was being chased now! As I hit the track, I glanced over my shoulder and see what I feared would happen….Cesar Chavez had caught me and passed me and charged around the track to take the win. I kept running as fast as I could, cursing my mechanicals the whole way and trying not to cramp my legs, and luckily crossed the finish line in 2nd only holding off Mason Marlow by a little over a minute after it was all said and done.
So at the end of the day, despite the unfortunate turn of events, I’m extremely pleased with how things turned out. This was after all, a race where my goal was to shake down the XTC and uncover any potential issues with it before Sea Otter…and that clearly was accomplished (I’ll triple check my chainline and add a chain tensioner to the front for the Otter). And I was able to put up a good result…getting 2nd place to Cesar Chavez in SS in a big accomplishment as he seems to get either 1st or 2nd in this race every year, so I’m glad, and not surprised at all, that it was him catching me in the end.
Now off to lick my wounds, and install that chain guide for Sea Otter….