Northern California Bicycle Racing Community
Mountain bike racing means different things to different people. No doubt it involves a predominately dirt course, and mountain bikes, but from there tastes diverge. Is it about technical skill? Fitness? Power? Endurance?
To some, XC racing has come to mean a competition of lean and fit racers on light and fragile hardtails, traveling fast enough on smooth dirt courses to benefit from drafting. Long climbs are an important aspect, often deciding the winners. Technical challenges consist mainly of cornering at high speeds on fire roads or hard packed trails with tires that were designed with low rolling resistance as a priority. The adherents of this format have become more and more specialized, spending countless hours training with watts and BPMs, intervals and phases. The freedom and adventure mountain biking once offered has, out of necessity, been sacrificed for another .3 watts/Kg.
Many have abandoned XC for the growing popularity of Enduro, forsaking the intense suffering of the climb for the sole thrill of the descent. Bikes are chosen more for their ability to make the technical trails easier than for climbing prowess. Ironically, these people attend races to experience an un-racelike atmosphere where the goal is to have fun. No pressure, just cruise the uphills (or get shuttled) and focus on a few relatively short timed downhill runs. Training days comprise riding trails with friends, where you might be mocked for wearing a heart rate monitor or a lycra costume.
In between there exists a less-defined type of racing:
Many hours of focused training are required, which weeds out the weak and undedicated. It is understood, and anticipated, that there will be prolonged periods of intense effort. The mountain bike chosen for this type of racing must be a calculated compromise of weight, durability, and trail-worthiness. Skill and fitness are considered when selecting tires, suspension, and frame type. Despite technical challenges at high speed on bikes not chosen solely for their descending prowess, no pads or full face helmets are worn.
This is what I call MOUNTAIN BIKE RACING, and Skyline Park in Napa is a great place to do it. Lots of singletrack, rocky climbs and descents, combined with high temperatures and dry and loose trails, make for a course that favors a well-rounded racer.
I won this race in 2012 but had to sit it out last year due to a shortened race season. This year I was ending the first build phase of my training in preparation for the Downieville Classic (a very real deal MOUNTAIN BIKE RACE). Skyline came at the end of a rest week, which sounds like an advantage, but will often find my legs kind of dead.
I once again chose to race a hardtail, despite having access to a light full suspension bike. This year did see the addition of a 100mm height adjustable seatpost, and the Snakeskin version of the 2.25" Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires. I chose my aluminum Superfly frame over the carbon Highball, as the shorter chainstays and longer toptube, combined with a lower possible handlebar height, climb and descend better for me. I felt the 1 lb frame difference was worth it, and all in started the race with the heaviest hardtail I have raced in years at 21.5 lbs.
It was already getting warm when we started the race at 9:00. My legs were feeling kind of flat after the relatively low activity of a rest week, so I rode conservatively up the fireroad start. Levi Leipheimer, Michael Hosey, and Skyler Taylor were the leaders, but Carson Benjamin, a few unkown riders and I kept them in sight for a bit. Once we hit the single track, I pulled around Carson and found myself behind a NRL racer and one in a black kit. They didn't seem to be too familiar with the course, so I looked for an opportunity to pass before we hit the technical sections. I found it when we reached the log steps. I quickly dismounted and passed them running up the stairs.
I pulled away from them in the technical singletrack, but was surprised to hear someone behind me as we began more technical climbing. I had pre-ridden the course on Monday and I was prepared for many of the steppy climbing challenges. I aced them, but could not lose the pursuing rider. Turns out it was neither of the racers I had last passed, but Davis Bentley. I stayed ahead of Davis through the climbs and descents to complete the first lap, where we saw Skyler and Hosey about 30 seconds ahead. Davis and the racer in the black jersey caught me as we began the singletrack climb at the start of lap two. Davis came around me for most of the first climb, but I sprinted by him at the top and put a few seconds into him. Halfway through the lap, I caught a glimpse of Skyler Taylor just before Davis closed the gap to me. He said he felt good so I let him by and slotted in behind him to chase Skyler down. We caught Skyler before the finish, but he and Davis had a 20 second lead on me as we started out for the third and final lap.
I began to fade a little and, before I knew it, they were out of sight. We were getting into lapped traffic, so dust in the air was no good indication that I was catching them. I could feel I was slowing, but I did my best to speed through the now very familiar trails without flatting or crashing. I did wash out in a switchback, covering my sweaty body with dust, but I did not reel either Davis or Skyler in. I crossed the line in just over 2 hours for a 5th place finish.