I was on the fence about Winding Trails. Due to a recent accident involving a telephone pole I was operating a bit under 100% capacity. Securing days off from work had suddenly (and unexpectedly) become an issue, and besides - it looked like it was going to rain all day.
Rain, you say?
Early Sunday morning saw Liam, Hannah and Steve piling into the car and barreling toward the ass-end of Connecticut (I feel like if there is one thing Connecticut has a lot of, its ass-ends). We arrived to slate-grey skies and sandy, dusty conditions with rain a constant threat. The trails were amazing.
Mountainbike race promoters should look to this venue for inspiration: the facilities were excellent, there was ample parking and shelter and (most importantly) the trail system was top-notch. My only gripe was with the inexplicably narrow bathroom stalls. If borderline-manorexic bike racers have trouble navigating the toilets one has to wonder who their intended demographic was. The one flaw in the course was the holeshot. It was about 100 meters from the start, through a sandpit, and into a handlebar-wide tail with a steep dropoff to the left. I watched the cat 2 sendoff, and it was actually pretty well behaved - albeit slower than normal. As "seasoned professionals", I supposed we could manage.
And then it started to rain.
The holeshot was bananas. There were riders everywhere. It looked like a kids party where someone replaced the pinata with a beehive. I had a handlebar between the back of my knee and my frame. There were 4 guys trying to fit on a 10" wide stretch of sandy trail. Someones bike hit a landmine to my right. I am also confident that at least one guy was going the wrong way. The bad line leading downwards ahead yawned its mouth like a bear awaiting salmon; one by one riders were swallowed up. I did not fare well in the scrum, riding gingerly along the outside of the ridge to keep from plunging further down the hill. At my limit and at the back, I furiously worked to limit my losses.
There was another racer jogging halfheartedly next to me.
Now powered by the white-hot fury of another botched holeshot I struggled to pass through greasy, Lindine-destroying corners and an apparently endless line of XC highposters unable to navigate the now-slick course. I worked my way up to the the wheel of Mean Matt Green and his Dugast Rhino 15psi Tires Of Infinite Traction and enjoyed a few minutes of flawless singletrack enjoyment.
Unfortunately, this was a race. I had to get going.
I made it to the next group and saw Kevin playing tugboat to a line of about 10 sodden, miserable-looking dudes. Oddly, no one seemed to be enjoying this as much as I was. I made my way through the parade of frowns up to Sweeneys moistened wheel-teat and began to suckle mercilessly. We (he) shed all the other guys in the group and started chasing down the lucky few who got a miss on the game of whack-a-mole we all just played.
We bore down on Cole, one of the guys that dropped me like a bag full of dog turds a few weeks ago at Hopbrook. He was with another racer, dangling a few seconds ahead. In agonizing slow motion, we exchanged places. Kevin now drove a group of three, and Cole clearly didnt enjoy chaperoning our date. He attacked out of the singletrack, leaving Kevin and I to ruminate on our watts-deficit and the wisdom of burning so many matches so early in such rough conditions.
Being the paragon of patience and good tactical sense, I jumped after him.
Leaving the warmth and safety of Kevins sheltering bosom was not an easy decision. The rain had picked up in earnest, and I was still trying to not crash on my still-healing wounds. In every corner, I felt cold tweezers in my elbow rooting around for and eventually excavating bits of rock and wood. I didnt push it in the woods. Embarrassed, Schlecking my way through the corners, I tried for vindication on the doubletrack. This state of affairs worked out until repeated trips into the bushes assured me that the Al Donahue strategy would not quite work for me because A) I didnt have NEARLY enough watts, and B) I was minimizing my strengths and maximizing my weaknesses.
A final, pants-shitting almost-catastrophe and I finally came around.
Crisis very narrowly averted, I watched Cole disappear ahead of me. I had completely stopped, removed a stick from my back wheel, and took stock of my situation. These conditions were tailor made for me, and I was letting the stress of BIKE RACING interfere with the pure enjoyment of being a grown man that delights in playing in the mud. I had no idea of the gap behind, and no desire to let it get any smaller. I got back on the trail and started riding. I wasnt bike racing now, I was enjoying myself - drifting through every corner, charging up every hill and laughing maniacally to myself every time I slipped a pedal or overcooked one of my lines. There was dirt in my eyes, dirt in my mouth and I could feel my hands starting to turn into vulture talons. I was thoroughly heckled on the runup. I was roundly mocked through the start/ finish. I may or may not have sung a song to one of the women I passed. Now, it was fun.
One to go.
My front brake was useless. Well, that isnt entirely accurate: my front brake was worn down to the metal, but stuck in the "pistons all the way out" position, making a sound not entirely unlike a dog thoughtfully chewing on kitty litter. If I was still BIKE RACING, this would have been cause for serious demoralization. But I loved this trenchfoot-inducing slog through the sandy Connecticut wilderness. A few seconds ahead, I saw the bright orange and white (well, mostly brown and brown) of a Bikebarn rider. I knew he was in my race because he was one of the guys I impotently shook my fist at as he effortlessly rode away from me after the holeshot. Uh-oh. This reintroduced an element of competition that promptly caused me to do a little more brakeless leaf-peeping.
Ok, bike race. My turn.
And... more bushes. Well played, mud. Somehow, through sheer force of will and a stubborn, knuckleheaded inability to give up I clawed my way up to the Bikebarn guy. His brakes had also fallen victim to the relentless grit, rendering every descent an exercise in clenched buttcheeks and prayers to gods both familiar and foreign. I pressed on. Soaked, chafed and barely recognizable I crossed the line smiling. Somewhere in the top 10, Im told (in order to avoid another bout with hypothermia I changed and got out pretty quick).
What a day.
It was great seeing all the CX folks out there - Durrin, Lindine, The Nuge, Master Wong, Frances, Molly, Carrie, Lily and others - Lets make this a thing. The MTB scene could learn a thing or two from the way CX is done in New England.
Its a damn sight better than road racing, at least.