Things came together and I made it to Tsali last weekend. The weather forecast looked pretty bad for Sunday, but I went for it anyway. I figured I usually do well when conditions get bad, but I didn't think about the effect mud has on a bike. Not that I worry about mud when I'm racing, but geez, this race wasn't even a priority for me.
I got there late Saturday morning and even though it was beautiful and dry, I decided to commit to it being muddy and mounted a Hutchinson Bulldog on the rear. The pre-ride was awesome. Tsali is just so fun to ride fast.
My next dilemma was what class to race in. I'm 41 this year and have stayed in 30-39 expert. This race was broken up into 30-34 and 35-39. Not a big deal, except for how they started it last year: The 35-39 group lined up 10' behind the 30-34 group and they went at the same time. If I registered in 35-39 I would be immediately be in traffic no matter how good my start was. I really wanted the win - the whole 10-year group - and thought being able to start in front would be best. Greed got the best of me, however. The 35-39 pre-registration was twice that of 30-34, meaning a bigger payout for a good finish in 35-39. The decision was made.
The rain started Saturday night, but wasn't too bad - yet. It wasn't even bad when the Beginner wave started, but then the skies let loose and conditions got worse as the day wore on. The Expert wave was scheduled to start at 1:30. I warmed up in the rain on the road, just to postpone the inevitable, and lined up 15 minutes early. At 1:30 they announced that an injured rider was on the course and we wouldn't start until he was hauled out by EMTs. At 2:00 they told us to go ride around and come back in 15 minutes. At 2:30 they decided that to get things going, the course would be the right loop backward, instead of the right loop/left loop combo.
I should've gotten some food, but instead I hung out catching up with people I hadn't seen in a long time, and made the observation that a lot of the people who I wanted to see how I'd stack up against had upgraded to semi-pro.
What a way to start. I hadn't had any signifigant food since breakfast and was hungry. We were about to ride a sloppy course that we hadn't seen run in that direction. I was about to wreak mechanical havoc on my bike in the name of age-group glory. What was I thinking?!?!
We were called to the line at 2:45. As I lined up behind the line, they said all 30-39 experts would start on the line. Sweet! I quickly got a spot. We got to vote for 2 or 3 10-mile laps. It looked pretty even, but 3 laps it would be. Sweet, still 30 miles. When the horn went off I almost went down spinning my rear tire in the mud, but recovered and started working up the fire road. I was pretty flat due to my warm-up being eons ago, but I worked the climbs to my advantage and dropped into the singletrack near the top 5.
Half way through the lap I came upon a rider down. As I got closer it was Earl Bradley, a pro from the east coast of FL who races for Trek. A couple of people were already stopped helping him. I slowed up to make sure things were under control. They assured me that they were and encouraged me to stay in my race. When I came around on the 2nd lap and he was still there I was thinking "WTF are we doing??? There's a guy laying here, obviously injured, and we're finishing a race??? Crazy.
Back to my race. I was riding really well, cleaning all but two sections of the course. At the end of the first lap was the biggest climb on the course, which was super-slick. I had caught a bunch of the 19-29 expert group, who were all walking up the climb, slipping in the mud. Not wanting to risk chainsuck, I stayed in the big ring, stood up and mashed up the climb, picking my way through the carnage. That was probably the highlight of my day.
I had worked my way up to 4th by the end of the first lap and had 3rd place in sight. I reeled him in on the climb up the road, but once he hit the singletrack he was gone. He either had some mean skills or total disregard for his safety. Either way, he was gone. I couldn't bomb the downhills because I couldn't see - my eyes were filled with mud.
With about 2 miles to go in the 2nd lap, I got to the place where spectators hike in from the finish and got word that the race had been cut to 2 laps. That sucked from the standpoint of an endurance racer, but was probably good for my bike. One of my rear brake pads was totally worn down and it was metal-on-metal. Another lap and I probably would've worn right through to the piston.
I held the 4th overall spot. It translated into 3rd in 35-39 and would've translated into 2nd in 30-34, but with a smaller payout as predicted. My teamie Patrick bagged 5th, putting 2 IF riders on the 35-39 podium.
When I finished the lines for the showers/bike washes were so long that I just put my bike on the roof, hoped for more rain to clean it, and cleaned myself under my Sun Shower. Upon arriving home Monday and tending to the filthy beast I tallied the damages: Brake pads and rear rotor. A complete dismantling and cleaning of the brake calipers had them working like new. Not bad, but there goes the $100 I won.