My alarm buzzed loudly on the plastic side table, and I bolted upright out of my sleeping bag. “What’s going on?” I thought. “Is someone calling me? Is there some kind of emergency?” It didn’t seem like I’d been asleep for more than an hour or two, and it was still full-dark outside. I incoherently slapped the snooze, only to be reawakened 9 minutes later in the same way. As I looked at the glowing rectangle and read the time of 5:30am, I panicked: “Crap, I have to race today!”
I hurriedly threw my kit on, grabbed my bike, hopped in the truck, and headed down the mountain. At the bottom, I collected all of the pertinent gear, grabbed some breakfast, and hopped on the shuttle bus. This was a process I would essentially repeat for 5 days. Groggy from not getting restful sleep due to worrying about the race the next day, if there was ever a time I didn’t feel mentally prepared to race my bike all day, this was it.
Our day began with a ride/hike up the Deadman Gulch trail–which is, of course, the totally wrong direction to ride this trail. However, we then pedaled out on Cement Mountain trail, which featured some beautiful views, great pedaling, and again: a heinous hike-a-bike. This was a theme that was repeated 4 out of the 5 days of the race. Every day began with a long climb, which always featured a ton of hike-a-bike. In fact, some days we spent–quite literally–hours pushing our bikes up the mountain.
There were quite a few smart ass comments posted on Facebook photos from the race asking, “wouldn’t it be easier to pedal up the mountain?” And the honest answer? No, no it wouldn’t. And that’s if I could ride my bike up the mountain. Which I personally couldn’t. I’m not the strongest climber in the world, but I’m no pansy either, and many of the trails we ascended (and descended, for that matter) didn’t mess around with trying to gain elevation at a slow, manageable rate. We pushed up everything from fall line, washed-out trenches to loose scree to moto-ed out ruts to endless mud fields and everything in between. While yes, some people do try to conserve energy on the climbs and save it for the descents, the reality is that with climbs as heinously steep as the ones we tackled in Crested Butte, if you want to make it to the top of the mountain there really isn’t much of a choice other than to push your bike.
However, not every single liaison stage was solely hike-a-bike: every now and then we got to pedal, too, as we did across the middle of the Cement Mountain Trail. Now maybe it’s lame for one of my favorite sections of singletrack from the week to not be one of the timed descents, but this pedal across a high alpine meadow was just stunning! Not only was the trail flowy and entertaining and the views camera-worthy, but we were truly out in the middle of nowhere. We were miles from the nearest road, and the beginning of our stage was located at the top of a saddle in, again, the freaking middle of nowhere. Yeah, I love riding my bike in the backcountry!
The first stage of the day was the Roaring Judy trail. This trail was so far out in the boonies that even some of the most dedicated local riders, including the owner of one of the local shops, who was racing with us, had never ridden it. And the one local I found who claimed to have ridden Roaring Judy said that he’s only ridden the upper half, and then connected to a different trail–never the lower half.
As we dropped into stage one and pinballed through a washed out trench of a trail, we suddenly followed the tape up and into the woods, merging onto an incredibly faint track with a punchy climb. After climbing sharply, we swung out of the woods onto a narrow, exposed, cliffside trail–at race pace! Avoiding looking down the drop off the side of the narrow track, we plummeted down a loose, sandy fall line, almost taking out a few photographers with out of control skids, and burning brake pads as we fell down the mountain toward the creek bottom below.
What a riot of a stage! Afterwards it’s all such a blur since you’re trying to push as fast as possible, but the thumping of adrenaline for an hour after the fact assures you that it was one hell of a ride!
While the merge onto lower Roaring Judy during the middle of the race was faint, the climb up from the creek bottom took place on a beat down track through a grassy meadow. Rumor was that the BME guys had to do a lot of work just to get the steep fall line section of Roaring Judy rideable, and without their traffic through the grass we would have had no clue where we were going. It’s no wonder that nobody rides this trail: in addition to being in the middle of absolutely nowhere, normally there probably isn’t even a discernible entrance to the singletrack, with the signpost hidden halfway down the trail and out of sight.
We climbed and climbed up out of the creek bottom, and then descended a little-used 4×4 road to our one major sag station for the day. After taking a quick breather and filling up on water and food, I headed out to begin the slog up to the top of Doctor Park.
Now, most sane people shuttle Doctor Park, since you can either get all pretty close or all the way to the top of the trail, depending on your vehicle’s ground clearance and how aggressive of a driver you are. And with such a long, arduous climb, I see no reason to pedal up it… unless you don’t have a friend to shuttle with, or you’re competing in a sadistic event similar to the Crested Butte Ultra Enduro. I spent hours covering the 17-mile transition from stages 1 to 2, with that massive climb in the middle.
By the time I eventually reached the top of Doctor Park, I was ready to just get down the mountain and drink some beer. However, despite my utter fatigue and pain in my hind parts, I was looking forward to this next stage the most out of any stage all week. Doctor Park had long been on my hit list, and I had heard endless stories of the sweet, technical descent in store.
As I ripped down sublime, perfectly-graded singletrack, I understood what everyone had been raving about! The Doctor Park trail isn’t steep, but the grade is steep enough and consistent enough that you can pick up an incredible amount of speed as you slalom through the aspens, ripping down the mountain with the forest blurring at the corners of your vision. But as you drop further and further down the mountain, the soil and the surroundings change, with more and more rocks cropping up. Before I knew it, I was pinning it through huge rock gardens with consequences on the downhill side that I didn’t want to think about. I slid around ridiculous hairpin switchbacks and sailed off unexpected rock drops at top speed–I wouldn’t have minded scouting out the lower section in advance. Thankfully, I made it all the way down to the bottom in one piece!
As I rolled up to the trailhead, I realized that despite all of my aches and pains, the day had been a success: I’d ridden fast, I hadn’t crashed or experienced any mechanicals (thanks to tossing a chain guide on the night before), and there was beer waiting for us at the bottom in a cooler! After 6,158 feet of climbing and 37.6 miles of pedaling/pushing, I was so ready for that beer!