Monday, May 29, 2006

Mix it up

Sunday, 28 May

Ski to Sea is always about the most fun I have on my single bike all year, and it's not even a bike race. Well, it is, but it isn't. Ski to Sea is a 7-sport, 8-athletes-to-a-team relay race from the Mt. Baker ski area to Bellingham Bay. The road bike leg (leg #4) is a 36-mile TT with some climbing but a net elevation loss. If you've never experienced it, you cannot imagine the buzz in Bellingham leading up to the race as everyone tries to compare teams, who's going well, who that unknown cross-country skier is, etc. etc. And I am quite sure the next few days in that town are spent memorizing and dissecting the results for discussion all summer long and into the planning for next year's dream team, which begins...well, maybe today.

This was my fifth year racing at the event, all five of them with the Boundary Bay Brewing Co. team. Our captain/manager Janet goes out of her way to recruit amazing female athletes from the U.S. and Canada--national champions, national team members, inspiring women all the way around. Boundary Bay has a winning tradition at Ski to Sea, finishing first in the women's division since before I started on the team. But every year is a new challenge. Janet still dreams of a top-10 overall finish. Unfortunately, as more men's teams get tougher and tougher, that goal slips out of reach. That's not to say that some of our women aren't right up there stunning the male competition with amazingly fast times.

The bike leg of Ski to Sea starts at the DOT station about 8 miles below the Mt. Baker ski area on the Mt. Baker highway. The first half? of the race goes down the highway, there's a right turn at Kendall, then a left turn onto South Pass Road, which takes you all the way to the finish in Everson. There's some fairly technical descending, a few hard little hills, and lots of power-along-in-your-biggest-gear downhill.

In the other legs of this race, it's all about how fast you can go, how strong you are. It's not too hard to predict which team(s) will have the best times. But there's another element to the road bike leg: drafting is legal. Depending on how teammates (cross-country and downhill skiers, plus a runner) do up the mountain, you might ride the whole 36 miles solo, or you might have a traveling companion right from the very beginning. Or, if you're really lucky, a stronger cyclist will start behind you, catch you, and give you a nice draft for at least part of your ride. I've experienced all of these over the years, although it's pretty tough to stay with stronger guys in the hilly parts of this course.

Participating in this race requires almost as much logistical coordination as training. I am thankful for having been completely taken care of in this department by Brian and E'Lana; all I do is show up, and they get me and my stuff up the mountain, arrange to get it down the mountain (we finish 36 miles from where we start), and then find me with warm clothes at the finish and get me and my bike back to Bellingham. Consider that these logistics are played out over 7 legs of this race, and you begin to see the scope of the logistical operation. To add to the challenge, the Mt. Baker highway closes to all traffic a half-hour before the race starts. Athletes who race at the top sometimes don't get back to Bellingham until at least noon--after competing at 8:30 a.m.!

A typical feature of this race is persistent drizzle on Mt. Baker, and this year was no exception. So we were delighted that we had our own tent (thanks, for warming up on our trainers. Since you have to get there so long before you start, there's plenty of time to check out who really showed up to race, who's substituting for whom, and who has what new gear. Race officials announce when the race starts, when the first hand-off is made between the ski legs, and when the first runners hit the road. Then, the tension really escalates as they call out the number of the first runner approaching the run-bike transition. All of us who expect to go out sooner rather than later swarm the start area, not caring so much about the drizzle any more. I was disappointed yesterday to watch just about all the male racing cyclists go out ahead of me; that meant no chance to draft them when they passed. There were a few strong combinations starting just about together, and I knew they'd be fast to the finish.

There's an element that complicates drafting here: what division riders' respective teams are in. Since I'm on an all-women's team, I'm no threat to any guy out there (no comments, please), and some have been extremely helpful in working with me in the past. In return, I don't much care what guys I tow around because I know they're not on a team that can challenge mine. But when guys start drafting each other, they'll pay attention to their individual divisions.

Because I was the first female starter on an all-women's team, I got my very own escort of two motorcycle cops all the way to the finish. At first I thought they were just patrolling the road and would soon go away; then I got annoyed because I felt like a suspected felon on a very short leash (I did not cross the center line, I promise, even though the road was closed); but then I decided to be flattered. I didn't get the draft that Glenn B. did from his pair, but I guess it was nice to have company.

I caught two guys fairly quickly, but then had to completely stop for a minor mechanical issue and they went right by. I passed them again, but then was caught by a group that these two had latched on to. At first I had high hopes for this group, but it was quickly very clear that one guy was doing all the work, and he was not super smooth or consistent. I sat in a little, drove the group a lot, and then the fastest guy and I dropped the others going up the hill into Maple Falls. We worked together for a ways, but then on the gradual downhill to Kendall, he pulled away. I was pedaling as hard as I could in my 55x11, but he probably weighed 80-100 pounds more than me and I just couldn't hold his wheel. Gravity at work. Before the turn at Kendall, I spied another group up the road and vowed to catch them before South Pass. And I did. They didn't even try to get on my wheel, so it was just me and my moto guys all the way to the finish.

Every year I am "challenged" by a few of the bends coming down off the Powerhouse climb and can't quite summon up the nerve to stay in my aero bars. I did better this year. But then in the last few miles as South Pass descends to the flats before Everson, there was such a swirling wind that I had to get out of the aero bars in every bend. I just had no control over the front wheel. I was dreading those 3? 4? 5? miles across the open, exposed valley to Everson with a strong crosswind, but I just put the bike in the middle of the lane (so that I had some road to blow across before I hit the ditch, if a strong gust came along). It was really fast, and bike control wasn't too bad. It had stopped raining for a few miles in the middle of the course, but it was raining again for the finish.

I was pretty happy with my ride this year. Not my fastest time ever, but not my slowest either, and considering that I had to stop by the side of the road, that's okay. I got another TV interview after my finish (same questions as last year, I think), and I remembered to find and thank the moto cops for their attentiveness. I moved my team from 30th to 26th overall, and we moved up to 23rd overall by the finish and won the women's open division for the sixth year in a row.

I suppose one reason this event is so fun for me is because it's an enormous time trial. But it is so much fun to work with athletes from other sports, to see them comparing their times to men and women they know in their sport (just like I do in mine), to hear what made their race fun or hard or both, and just to see the collective excitement of the whole team and our sponsors. And then there's the enthusiasm amassed by 400 teams of 8 athletes each. The "rec" category is huge, a few teams get DQed because they don't make the time cut-offs at particular points, and you wonder how some people can even ride 36 miles on the bikes or in the clothes they show up with. But EVERYBODY seems to have fun, and 3200 competitors having fun is a great thing to share.

All the results are here.

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