It was the worst week leading up to a big race that I've ever had. While riding at Croom last Saturday (my last long ride before the race), my car was broken into and I lost a lot of stuff. The lowlifes busted out my window and made off with cash and wallet, 2 pair of sunglasses, my gear bag (which was full of stuff priceless to a cyclist and worthless to a lowlife) and my Sirius receiver. The scumbags even took my clothes! At least they left my towel to put between my sweaty bike shorts and car seat.
It was Saturday afternoon. I had no cash, credit cards, ID or travel gear. My car had no driver's side window. Somebody had the keys to my house and my home address. I was supposed to leave to head to the Cohutta 100 Thursday morning. My stress level immediately went through the roof and stayed there until I was finally on the road Thursday.
Thankfully I have an understanding boss, because I only made two brief appearances all week in my mad rush to get my affairs in order. It didn't look good a couple of times, but Lauren, Fontana and I were rolling out of Tampa at 6:30 Thursday morning.
We rolled through Atlanta and stopped at Blanket's Creek north of town to spin the travel out of the legs. We were supposed to meet Jeff and Andy there, but Andy's bike was delayed at the airport (how they can lose a bag on a nonstop eludes me), so we rolled out alone so we could finish the drive to Blue Ridge and get our cabin keys. We found a nice pet-friendly cabin very close to the race venue last year, and made sure we got it again.
Our cabin mates were Jeff, Andy, Harlan, Elk, Eddie, Namrita and the O'Dea dogs. Harlan showed up with a brand-new Ti Deluxe 29er with a Lefty fork, partially assembled, a box full of parts and my new Ergon grips. He went right to work, intent on riding the new bike in the race. He was so sure it was going to work out that he didn't even have his old bike with him. The boy's got some cajones.
I figured if Harlan can race a brand-new bike, I can race some new grips, so I installed the Ergons, played around with the fit in front of the cabin, then we all headed to Tanasi for a spin around the trails. We took it easy, let the dogs have fun and took in the views we wouldn't see much of during the race. I couldn't get the positioning on the Ergons to feel right, so the experiment ended until I can figure them out. I love how they feel but didn't want to risk something going wrong and affecting my race. I like to leave the experimentation for training rides anyway.
I knew that since the race was now part of the NUE series, and since the NUE series seems to have gotten more peoples' attention this year, my results were not going to be quite what they were last year (10th overall, final podium spot). With guys like Eatough, Juarez, Price and others showing up, the podium was going to be elusive. I settled for personal goals: a top-20 finish and shaving 1 hour off last year's time.
The weather was looking great. The high was going to be in the mid 70s with no chance of rain. I could've done without the sub-40 degree start, but it would warm up quickly. I added a base layer, arm and knee warmers and a vest to keep warm. I should've gone without the vest. This would cost me an early stop to ditch the thing barely 1 hour in, and a possible bridge up to a faster group. Hindsight.
We rolled out right on time, starting with 2 miles of pavement before hitting the dirt. I stayed near the front, but didn't get too aggressive yet. I seem to have a problem ramping my heart rate really high early in the starts and my breakfast (which last year's experiments taught me needs to be big) was still digesting. I have to work through that, because being up there at the start is necessary if I ever want to shed the role of the guy with the steady pace who feeds off the guys who roll out fast and blow up.
My race strategy was to stop at aid stations 2, 4 and 6. I'd sent bottles up with drink mix so I could just add water and go. I thought about going without a pack, but needed someplace to carry the layers I'd be shedding. I wish I'd thought about this one more.
Things went well, except for stopping when I exited the singletrack for the gravel to shed my vest, and when I checked the water level in my pack at aid station 2. I didn't put the bladder all the way back in and the hose was hitting my knee with every pedal stroke. This was in the heavy climbing part of the course. It was like a Chinese water torture. I had to stop to fix the offending hose.
I went back and forth with the eventual singlespeed winner and a Cannondale guy all day. I stopped at aid station 4, ditched all my layers, got my chain re-lubed (those guys at that aid station totally rocked!) and my belly filled. It was showtime, with a bunch of flat road and a couple of big climbs back up to Tanasi. I'd already caught one guy who cracked and I was sure there would be more. I caught the singlespeeder and the Cannondale guy again (they rolled through aid station 4, passing me again in the process) and finally put them behind me for the last time. I was feeling great, except for my recently filled-with-water pack. It was killing my back, so I took a calculated risk and dumped it and its contents off at aid station 5 without stopping. I was sure that I'd have enough fluids to finish and that I wouldn't need anything that was in the pack. I also had one more aid station to re-fuel at before the finish.
I started to reel in another rider, but he was proving stubborn. By the time I reached aid station 6, he was still out front. I stuck with my plan and grabbed one last bottle. While the volunteer was filling my bottle, I stuffed my face with some Oreo knockoffs. I usually stay away from the junk food during races, but pretty soon the sugar rush had me flying and feeling even better! The singletrack started with a nice grunt of a climb. I saw my elusive rider up there, walking it. Sweet! He was mine. It took a while to reel him in, but I got him and a few others as I flew through the singletrack. I was flying and most of them were cooked, and they'd hear me coming and just move over to let me by.
I made my final pass at the bottom of TR Express and had to pin it on the pavement to make sure I held the spot. I ended up 19th overall with a time of 7:40. Last year's time was 8:35. Mission accomplished. I ate a hamburger that tasted like a hockey puck (but I didn't care), cleaned up and began the vigil waiting for the drop bags to return. In between, we indulged Harlan's desire to get back to his southern roots with a trip to the McCaysville Family Diner for a plate full of fried catfish, fried veggies, fried potatoes and sugar-water, er, sweet tea.