Race Report: Rumble at 18 Road (aka the Damp Disaster in the Desert)

I picked a bad time to start racing. 

After all, I’m getting a little long in the tooth for this sort of thing.  This August marks my half-century point.  Why would I take up such an activity now?

Actually, this wasn’t my first race.  I entered my first race at age 39.  Of course, I had a good reason for it then.  After purchasing my first mountain bike at age 35 in Wyoming and having enjoyed trail riding far more than I ever expected, I was then transferred to North Dakota.  While North Dakota is a wonderful place, the trail riding just didn’t compare to the Rockies.   I had to do something to put the jazz back in the ride, so I entered a race.

Physiologically, racing just isn’t my gig.  I’m aerobically challenged and mentally much more attuned to one-time shows of strength than extended, heartrate-in-the-red-zone excursions.  I’d much rather pound out rock gardens than a cadence.  Nevertheless, since rock gardens are as scarce in North Dakota as palm trees and manatees, and since races were available, that’s what I did.

The Black Mamba, ready to Rumble at 18 Road
The Black Mamba, ready to Rumble at 18 Road

Fortunately, my time in NODAK was short, and I was back in Colorado, then Montana, with no thought of racing.  Mountain biking is supposed to be fun, not painful.  Then a couple years in DC prompted me to enter into a couple races.

Finally, I settled permanently in Colorado, surrounded by fun singletrack, so racing was out of mind again.  So, after three years in this singletrack paradise, having more fun than any human should be allowed, why would I sign up for what would be my fourth race: The Rumble at 18 Road?  Two reasons:

  1.  My son races in the Colorado NICA league.  Our league only has a fall season, but I wanted him to keep up the pace in the spring, so I found other races for him.  I figured if I was signing him up, I better sign myself up as well.
  2. My physical capability had really fallen off the last few years.  While some of this is inevitable at my age, I still found the total level of degradation unacceptable.  Just putzing in the rocks was not making me any stronger.  Having to train for a race–that should help reverse the trend.
Warming up before the race--the mud is just starting to get troublesome.
Warming up before the race–the mud is just starting to get troublesome.

I picked a bad time to start racing.

Like many teenagers, my son has a lot of irons in the fire.  He was on his school’s Science Olympiad team.  As a freshman, he was on Team 3, which didn’t qualify for the state competition.  However, Teams 1 and 2 did, and when a Team Two member dropped out, Kyle was moved up.  It wasn’t until the Tuesday before the race (held on April 19), that we realized it was on the same day as the State Science Olympiad competition!  His commitment to his team was more important than the $55 non-refundable registration fee, so he was going to Science Olympiad and I… I was going alone to a race I really only signed up for because of him!

The 50 – 59 wave just before the gun.

I picked a bad time to start racing.

The night before the race, I checked the weather.  There was a 40% chance of showers at 2am with the clouds clearing to mostly sunny by the first gun.  Perfect: a little sprinkle would knock down the dust and turn Fruita’s usually dry powder perfectly tacky.

When I woke at 6am, it was raining, and it was clear it had been doing so for some time.  Upon arriving at the race site, the few riders who were warming up were gathering mud on their tires.  I thought about the upper reaches of the race course and shuddered at the thought of all that clayey soil being thoroughly soaked.  But the race was to go on, and so was I.

Dads walking Juniors' bikes back to the start due to severe mud.
Dads walking Juniors’ bikes back to the start due to severe mud.

The first mile on dirt road wasn’t bad, but a couple steep pitches were so slick they did force a few riders off their bikes.  Some riders, especially in the younger age groups, simply turned around and headed back to the start without ever reaching the singletrack.  Seeing a hard-packed road cause this much difficulty, I knew we were all in for it when we hit the singletrack on Prime Cut.  Over the course of that first sloppy mile, it was easy to keep track of the competition.  There were nine riders in my class.   Of the nine, six were clearly out in front, and steadily increasing the gap between them and the rest of us.  There were two who had fallen back and were steadily falling further back.   And there was me–all by myself–unable to make up ground on the lead pack, yet in no danger of losing ground to those behind me.  This seeming intractability of my placement began to sap my desire to really push myself.

I always thought that "Just finishing is something to be happy about" cliche was bogus . . . until today!
I always thought that “Just finishing is something to be happy about” cliche was bogus… until today!

The start of Prime Cut wasn’t as bad as I expected, and I chugged up the sloppy singletrack with an occasional dab to prevent a muddy faceplant.  The higher I got on Prime Cut, the more conditions deteriorated.  Occasionally, a hardy youth would shout “track,” and I would yield to allow the pass.  As I approached the high point on Prime Cut, ready to cross the meadow that precedes the vicious climb which begins Chutes and Ladders, I could see lots of bikers… none moving.  That upper meadow was completely unridable.  Some were doing their best to push their rigs through the squishy slop, and some were doing their best to clear mud from all those places where clearance is tight.  A few sat down out of frustration or, knowing how much worse Chutes and Ladders would be, chose to accept a DNF and bailed for 18 Road and the easiest way back to the staging area.  I could tell doing well, or just surviving this race, would be much more a function of attitude than of fitness or even cycling prowess.  Knowing my position was set and then realizing this race had little to do with mountain biking, the last of my incentive to really push myself dissipated.

Smiling, but I'm not sure why.  Delirious, maybe?
Smiling, but I’m not sure why. Delirious, maybe?

All week long, I had pondered whether I would make the best time riding or pushing the climb that starts Chutes and Ladders.  Well, Mother Nature had made that decision for me.  There was absolutely no riding this slop at this angle.  The only alternative was to shoulder the bike and hike up the miserable, muddy slope.  Even pushing the bike was out of the question, as mud would fill everything, and both wheels would come to a complete stop.  The course marshal shouted words of encouragement as muddy-faced riders struggled up the hill, many cursing under their breath or even out loud.  I passed a lot of folks here. Those skinny, lycra-clad youngsters who sailed by me on the ridable section—well, they’re not so tough when you have to shoulder your 25, er… 30, uh… make that 40-pound carbon fiber and mud-framed wonder and hoist it up a major slope!  Aha! I found my relative strength in the sport of mountain bike racing!

Did I just cover 11 miles in the desert?
Did I just cover 11 miles in the desert?

Usually, cresting the high point on Chutes is a time of great joy: the worst of the climbing is over, and the great roller coaster ride is about to begin.  Not so, this day.  The mud was so bad, it would cake up and bring all moving parts to a complete stop, even on a steep downhill.   It was comical watching determined riders slip, slide, and slither mostly out of control down the steepest parts—quite a reward for all that hard work going up!  Overall, I spent far more time clearing mud from forks, swingarms, and derailleurs than actually riding, or even pushing.  I tried using a piece of broken juniper to poke mud from difficult holes, but it had been lying in the rain so long, it was as soft as a strand of overcooked linguini.

By the time Chutes dumped out onto the Vegetarian Trail, the singletrack was mostly rideable.  Still, there were mucky spots which would force a dismount and cleaning session, consuming more time.  But speed picked up, especially for the final two miles of dirt road riding.  Unfortunately, my glasses were muddy beyond cleaning, and I had to ride through the rain, squinting as I picked up speed, hoping I could see the faceplant-inducing sloppy spots before they claimed me.  In the end, it took me 2hrs 9min to complete a course which should have taken scarcely an hour.  I really felt for the Cat 2 riders who had to go two laps!  The Cat 1/Pro riders, who started three hours later, were put on a modified course which didn’t make for much of a race, but prevented further damage to the singletrack, as well as a result which would have been meaningless.

Did all these bikes just ride in the desert?
Did all these bikes just ride in the desert?

I picked a bad time to start racing.

Being 49 years old, I signed up to ride with the 40-49 year olds.  I subsequently learned that age at the end of the year is the key, so I modified my entry to ride with the 50 – 59 year olds.  That should have been a good thing, putting me at the young end of my group.  Upon checking results, I finished 6th among the nine Cat 3 riders in my age group (one of the six in front of me bailed and took a DNF).  However, it turns out only two of the 40-49 year olds finished the race, and my time was better than one of them.  Not only would I have podiumed, it would have been silver!  Adding to my frustration was that I learned that two of my age group who finished ahead of me did so by only a couple minutes.  In retrospect, that decision to not push myself harder was a poor one.  Lesson learned.

Despite the difficulties, I must say the day was an absolute hoot.  Rain in Fruita?  What are the odds?  Especially on race day and hard enough to completely destroy the race!  The sheer absurdity of the whole situation had me chuckling rather than cursing.  I had a great time and don’t for a minute regret having done it.  Of course, it’s easy for me to say that—it was my first race in years and I was in the Old Guy Cat III category.  The Cat 1 and Pro racers who were looking to rack up points for national qualifying weren’t quite so amused, but I’ll be smiling for some time to come.

What a great time to start racing!

Editor’s note: Some folks, and especially the locals, may be upset at this tale of potential trail damage. For those concerned about the topic, dgaddis’s two-part opinion piece about “Wet Weather Racing and Trail Protection Policies” is a great analysis of the issue.