Since 2019, I have turned my focus towards marathon mountain bike races, generally competing in events ranging from three to eight hours in length. As such, my training centers around developing a strong “diesel” engine: a steady sweet-spot pace that I can maintain for hours at a time, putting in hard efforts for the occasional techy spot or steep climb, then settling back into that constant all-day pace.
When I learned that I would in fact be able to race in the XCO event at the 2022 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup at Snowshoe Mountain, West Virginia on July 31, it was already mid-July. I had just raced my first UCI mountain bike event (also XCO), finishing last place in a small field, but with enough points to allow me to race at Snowshoe as an alternate. With only two weeks until Snowshoe, there was not time to adjust my training for the highly variable demands of cross country racing. Instead, I would be racing the Wilderness 101 event as a part of the National Ultra Endurance series the weekend prior to Snowshoe, and then turning around and racing the World Cup XCO event.
75 miles. 7 hours.
18 miles. 1.5 hours.
The opportunity was too good to pass up.
There was little chance that I would perform well, as both the level and style of racing of a World Cup XCO event were well outside of my comfort zone. But I was determined to show up and make the best of it.
And show up I did.
When I arrived on Thursday, I was surprised to realize that much of the course, despite being wet and muddy, was within my comfort zone. That being said, there were a few key sections that challenged me. The course started by rolling through Snowshoe Village, then dropping (literally) down the back side. That first drop scared me more than anything else on course during the first pre-ride. From the drop, we climbed back up towards the Village, crossed two flyovers, then rolled through the pits for the first time before descending “P,” one of Snowshoe’s downhill trails. It was rooted and rocky, but after walking it once, I was fairly confident descending it. After “P,” we twisted around through the woods and a gnarly muddy section (that was actually re-routed on Saturday morning before the race on Sunday) and then climbed back up. The next portion of trail was one of my favorites, a flow section with a few little jumps, some root hops, and then a steep drop into a switchback. The root drop into the switchback was a little slick, but rideable. The course then climbed back up and across the side of the mountain, rolled through the pits/feed zone a second time, and descended a trail parallel to “P.” This second descent was wide open, but extremely muddy. During pre-rides, I slid out and crashed on it twice, yet, ironically, wasn’t scared by the descent. It really was not technical other than the mud. Just steep and muddy. The climb that followed was fun, taking what appeared to be a downhill flow trail in reverse and winding up the mountain to the infamous rock garden. On my first pre-ride, I stopped to look at the rock garden, then rode it straight through with no problem. Unfortunately, I stood around and watched other riders and saw several people crash…and got scared myself as the conditions on course changed constantly and it felt like the traction and lines through the rock garden changed with them. From the rock garden, it was just a short climb back up into the village and back through for another lap.
Honestly, one of the coolest things about this weekend was realizing that world and Olympic champions (Kate Courtney, Jolanda Neff, and all the others) had to walk the techy sections and explore lines and try things multiple times too. They, even though they’ve been riding for years longer and at such a higher level, are still learning too!
On Friday, I had the opportunity to work with a skills coach, Keith, who specializes in Enduro-style riding. He met me just before pre-ride started, and stood out in the rain and coached me through the basics of drops and line selection for the rock garden. Then he patiently watched and coached as I repeated the drop at least six or eight times, moved to the rock garden, and then repeated the rock garden over and over and over again. During that process, I went OTB on the rock garden once, but got back up, straightened my bars, and kept on practicing. After working with Keith, I made one full lap of the course on my own, then called it quits for the day in an attempt to let my body recover from Wilderness 101.
Saturday morning, it was drizzly and foggy, but the course showed signs of starting to dry. My goal was to ride two laps through without stopping, but I was feeling extremely mentally fatigued from riding right at the edge of my skill level and found that I was less able to suppress the fear as a result. Still, I got through two laps, rode everything smoothly at least once, and then spent the next two hours cleaning my bike, helmet, and shoes for Sunday’s race.
I cannot express enough gratitude to the Black family for hosting me this weekend, to the Roanoke Star Cycling athletes and families for their support, to Steve Jones for being my team mechanic and feed zone super star, and Mike Hollingsworth for standing in the start box with me and holding my bike up so I could pedal backwards and stay moving before the call ups. This weekend was an incredible experience and that is in large part due to everyone up at Snowshoe, as well as everyone in Roanoke and elsewhere who were cheering me on all week long.
When race time finally came, I was the last call up, as expected. What was unexpected, is that I was able to hang with the pack from the start, all the way through the Village, over the first drop (that I SENT thanks to Keith’s coaching!), and through both flyovers. Coming off of the second flyover, another rider took an inside line and crashed, sliding into my front wheel and taking me out in the process. We both remounted quickly, and chased after the group, catching them at the start of “P.” I hung back for a half-second, hoping the trail would clear enough for me to ride. I rode the first two-thirds of “P,” then had to slow up and walk behind everyone else who was also walk/running the bottom of the descent.
From here, I started fighting incessantly with my left pedal and cleat. No matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t get it to clip in. All week, even with all of the mud, I didn’t have any issues getting back in my cleat, but at that moment, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get clipped in. As a result, I struggled through the next few sections of trail, riding them awkwardly, or stepping down, running, and then attempting to remount…again and again and again. At one point, the fight with my pedal even resulted in me getting my bars tangled in the tape and having to stop yet again. Eventually, after running the climb back up, I finally got back into my bike, and started pedaling again. By that point, the field had ridden away and was out of sight.
I gathered myself and settled in pedaling, trying to ride as fast and hard as I could, but also minimize mistakes on the trail. Unfortunately, in the process of descending the wet muddy straight, I crashed. Hard. I am pretty sure I hit spectators in the process, and definitely knocked my bars past my top tupe, scraping it through the RideWrap, and twisting my brake lever up as well as my bars off-center. It took me a bit to get up and get on the bike again, and it was only after I was already riding that I realized that my bars were crooked—and that I would need to ride the rock garden before reaching the pits where I could have Steve straighten them. So I did. I was nervous, but so, so proud that I rode the full rock garden, even with my bars off-center.
I thought, coming into my second lap, that after all of the catastrophe of the first lap, that I would get pulled at the 80% mark, but I didn’t. On my second lap, I was admittedly sore and shaken from my crash on the first lap. I sent the drop again, but got off-line on “P” and had to step down and run the bottom section. And again, I struggled on the climb back out from “P” and had to walk when I lost traction. As I got back on, I could hear the leaders coming up behind me and my motivation to bury myself waned noticeably. The first three riders passed me just as I got to the feed zone, and as I half heartedly chased them, I zoned into the next descent, the one where I had crashed so hard on the first lap. I sent it, didn’t crash, and then got passed by a few more individual riders as I climbed back up towards the rock garden. Similarly to “P,” I got off-line a bit mid-way through the rock garden, and stepped down rather than risk crashing. When I came around to the 80% mark, I was expectedly pulled, and cooled down briefly before taking cover from the rain to watch the remainder of the race.
To watch the race, go to Red Bull TV. They got a short clip of me descending the same muddy section where I crashed, shortly after being passed by the leaders at approximately 32:40.
In short, I’m disappointed with my performance. Without the two crashes and the odd mechanical(?) of my pedal and cleat not working, I know I could have hung on longer. At the same time, I’m incredibly proud to have showed up, ridden hard, and faced down my fears on a bunch of rowdy, technical, and MUDDY trails.
Aside from the race itself, it was an amazing weekend. I got a front row view of Gwendolyn Gibson and Chris Blevins winning back-to-back short track races for the USA, was surrounded by my junior race team girls (and their families) cheering me on all weekend, and got to line up with the best riders in the world. SO FREAKING COOL.
I’ll be back next year!