Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Another Elkhorn race report

Tuesday, 21 June

It was a great weekend at the tenth edition of the Elkhorn Classic. There is so much to love about this race. It’s challenging. It’s rewarding. It’s beautiful. You make new friends and are reunited with old ones. It’s a city girl’s chance to hang in a friendly small town. Highlights for me this year:

New discovery. It took 10 years of thinking Sunday’s road stage was 118 miles out in the middle of nowhere, but this year I discovered that there is a CAFÉ halfway through the race. It’s making me rethink my strategy for next year. Coffee and pie might hit the spot after the first feed zone: unless you want to vie for that coveted 12th place in GC, what’s the difference between being 15 minutes and 30 minutes down? There will still be beer and pizza for you at the finish—and there will still be men stragglers on the course behind you. :)

Nature breaks. In Friday’s road race, it took the women’s peloton about 3 miles of talking and waving to organize a pee stop. Best comment: “Don’t tell Candi. We’ll all get flamed on OBRA chat!” In Sunday’s road race, the cat 1-2 men passed me as they were trying to take a nature break. Some appeared to get stage fright with me hanging off the back of their bunch (I hid behind the follow car—out of sight and no chance of any downwind drift). Some had to stop, some nearly ran into the ditch as they tried to go while riding on the edge of the pack. Kept me distracted from my solo pity party at that stage.

Ego. I think my GC finish this year was tied for my highest place ever at Elkhorn. I was also DFL, so it wasn’t much of an ego boost. But I forget that on the way to and from this race, I pass by a stage race prologue course where I still hold the women’s course record. I won by one second. Happy memories every time.

In-race entertainment. In Friday’s road race (after the pee stop), one woman rode off the front of the pack on the descent into Union. She had about 300 meters on us coming up to the second of two turns on the entire 73-mile course. A man in a wheelchair rolled out into the crosswalk. The lead car had to stop. The rider had to stop. What’re ya gonna do? Her team then proceeded to hammer away at the front of the bunch (there were a sum total of 20 women in the race this year) while one of their members tried to deal with a mechanical at the back of the bunch and got dropped, never to catch back on.

Memories: When you’ve been at a race 10 times and in it 9 times, you are distracted by memories of people you’ve raced with and accumulated race highlights. When stage 1 and stage 4 were run in the opposite directions. When it snowed. When the TT course ran straight out to the Elkhorn range. When the NZ women’s team showed up on their way to the HP Women’s Challenge, shattered the field on the first climb on the last day, and then DNFed at mile 18 because they didn’t want to ride that far right before HP, leaving the rest of us in onesies and twosies for the remaining 80-some miles. Riding in cattle drives on stage 4. Climbing Dooley Mountain with women who’ve never ridden 100 miles in their lives and surprise themselves by making it up that final climb. (I’m still trying to block the memories of the year we rode down to Hell’s Canyon in horrible heat on a substitute course because of road work.)

Baker City peeps. It is quite amazing to ride your bike 50 miles into the Oregon mountains, come to an intersection, and discover two friendly corner marshalls stopping traffic so that you can roll through a stop sign. Lead and follow cars are staffed by devoted local supporters. The crits (when not cancelled because of rain) are loaded with more primes than there are laps in each race. The people in every feed zone, all 20 of them urging you to take THEIR bottle (but I only have two bottle cages….) and no miffed hand-ups. And all the businesses that welcome riders (they know who you are when you walk in the door) and ask how the race is going.

Going solo. I was flying solo at the race this year because Mick was off jousting with other windmills at Race Across the West. But it is such an easy race in terms of logistics, and many people generously “looked after” me. And they are some of the ones I will remember while I’m racing out there next year!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

HT*U Part One

Wednesday, 1 June

I vowed not to be a wuss or to whine too much about the unpleasantness forecast for last Saturday’s Lewis and Clark 12/24 hour race. That made things hard before I even got on the bike. A tornado touched down on Friday evening not far from the race start, and the forecast for Saturday included rain and snow above 2,500 feet (the race tops out on Old Man Pass above 3,000 feet) and thunderstorms with hail in the afternoon in the lowlands. Yummy race conditions—not.

There’s no boy scout in me, but I went into this as prepared as I could. Toe warmers between my shoes and shoe covers, one pair of dry gloves in my pocket and another pair waiting for me at each of the time stations, dry rain jacket at each time station and dry everything at TS 2 at the top of the pass. Prep for my previous 12-hour events has mostly focused on food, but this one was all about trying to stay warm; staying dry was apparently out of the question.

Yes, it was raining at the start so it was full-on HTFU from the get-go. The first few miles are up and down, and I caught and passed several riders. A group of recreational riders going the opposite direction included someone who recognized me, and during our mutual greetings of “hi,” I missed the route marker painted on the road and thus missed a turn. But so did the rider in front of me, whom I continued to chase until the road came to a dead end. We turned around and got back on course; some folks were more than a little surprised when I passed them for the second time in three miles.

I’ve raced this part of the course four times now, so I didn’t have to have the cue sheet in hand, and I recognized most of the turns (apart from the one I missed). After a beautiful stretch along the Washougal River, the route eventually comes to the Columbia River Gorge and a busy highway. Most traffic was polite, but one tractor-trailer fully loaded with plywood did not move over an inch. Thankfully, this was a section where the shoulder was 3 feet instead of 6 inches. Time Station 1 is at the Bridge of the Gods, and it looked very Wagnerian with the fog and mist in the hills and on the river (and a tailwind, gentle by Gorge standards). I had already planned to simply roll through the time station, but I snagged three cookies before hitting the road again.

From that point until I reached the end of the big loop back in Hockinson 100 miles later, I saw just one other racer. I had already passed all the other women in the 12-hour race. It was hard to stay motivated without anyone on my radar, but there were other things to keep me occupied. An elk came out on the road and blocked my path (I had not HTFUed enough to play chicken with something that big!). There was a timed KOM section up the steepest part of Old Man Pass; the time keeper at the bottom was ringing his cowbell so hard that I couldn’t ask if there was anyone ahead of me to chase or how far to the top. Who would have thought: too much cowbell!

Time Station 2 at the summit was a full stop to stock up on food and water and to swap some of my soggy clothes for warm, dry layers (no snow falling up there, just sunshine!). Gotta love stripping off half your clothes by the side of the road at the top of a mountain. The first few miles down the north side were between four-foot snowbanks on either side of the road, and I was so happy for my dry clothes and heavy winter raincoat and toasty toes, especially when I rode into a shower. I thought there was no way I would see Mt. St. Helens through the clouds and rain, but being wrong is good sometimes! In the first glimpse, clouds obscured the top of the mountain. But then I remembered that mountain has no top! From a lower elevation farther down the descent, the complete view was breathtaking: the all-white peak so close you could count the trees on its lower slopes. This view is worth the price of admission (in dollars and effort) to this race. It was all I could do not to stop and gawk! (I did stop here to take pictures the first time I did this race.)

The race winds downhill through forest and then continues along a reservoir to the town of Cougar and Time Station 3, and the headwind along this stretch was demoralizing although not demonic. The best food discovery this year was mini bagels with PB and marmalade. Fix one to-go and eat it as you roll out. There is a drawback to this eating plan, however. After TS 2, the marmalade oozed onto my gloves. Licking my gloves was a little gross if I thought about it too much, so at TS 3, I took off my right glove before I started eating. Then I managed to get marmalade on my brake hood. No, I did not try to lick that off!

More short climbs and small towns and a bunch of RR tracks, and eventually you’re back at the start/finish in Hockinson to tackle the short loop to fill out your 12 hours (or 24). Going so long without seeing another racer left me feeling complacent about the whole race thing. I was ready to climb off and be done at the end of the 140-mile big loop, or at least to stop at the finish line and ask how far back my competition was in order to figure out how much farther I needed to go to win. But that didn’t seem very sports(wo?)manlike and perhaps an insult to the promoter (I won’t try my best), so I didn’t. Funny, though, seeing more racers on the first lap of the short loop unconsciously got me back into a more competitive mode; I set a goal and worked really hard to ride steady so that I would meet it (I missed by 2 miles—I dropped my chain about 6 miles from the end and that broke my focus).

My total distance for the 12 hours was 177 miles (not counting the extra mile I rode off course just after the start). Certainly not my best effort on this course, but better than the 0 miles I was afraid the weather would bring me to. Not seeing other racers—or their always-cheerful support crews—gave the race the feel of a touring ride for almost 100 miles. But the competitive drive and social interaction as I passed other racers or they passed me made the last few hours fun—in a really perverse way.