This past weekend was the big race up at Plattekill in the Catskills, NY.
Plattekill is known for being big and difficult, so I went to Saturday practice with a bit of trepidation. It's almost always muddy, even if it's not raining (which most of the time it is). Plattekill Mountain is peppered with loose shale that moves as you roll over it, and where there's not loose shale, there are roots to grab your front tire and your immediate attention.
The course started off in typical fashion, winding back and forth over soft black earth through moderately dense, tall, thin trees. Then comes the first real descent down the mountain over the loose rocks you've been anticipating. The course splits for expert-pro and beginner-sport to provide the experts with a few sheer drops, then meets up again just before the first of two really steep snaking descents over loose muddy shale, both terminating in 6 and 9-foot sharp descents (some people called them drops, but they're not sheer - you can roll them).
After the first steep rocky section and sharp 6-foot descent, you emerge from the woods to ride off-camber across the grass of the open field, then plunge back into the woods to more mud and loose shale. The trail winds down the mountain through the trees, then crosses back into the grassy side of the mountain, descending in switchbacks before taking you back into the woods to a sharp descent, another very rocky section, and the second of the two more treacherous steep descents over loose muddy shale. This is the descent that turns to the right and suddenly plunges down in a sharp 9-foot descent/drop.
I bulldog my way through, picking myself up along the way, instead of just riding what I can and stopping to haul the bike through the really nasty parts.
Once at the bottom, you hook a hard left and ride off-camber across the open field, and down the final third of the course, which is fairly easy compared to what you've just come through. Your biggest challenges at this point will be the thick black mud that is now caked in your tires reventing any traction, and the pedaling sections near the end.
By the end of my first practice run I am already pretty beat up. I make the mistake of clipping in, like I do out West. I take several spills in sections I should walk, because I figure they wouldn't have put these [steep, rocky, treacherous] sections in a beginner/sport course if they didn't expect that we could do it. So figuring I'm supposed to do it because it's there, I bulldog my way through, picking myself up along the way, instead of just riding what I can and stopping to haul the bike through the really nasty parts.
It is 11:30 after my first run. One of the guys (Paul) sees me about 1/2-way through the course and finishes the run with me, talking me through that sharp 9-foot descent. It would have been difficult to finish without him there talking me through it. No matter what I do to try to block out the images, I still see myself launching over that unseen 4-foot drop at Diablo the week before, landing on my helmet, and hearing the crunch of my body against the hard ground. Although my sore neck has recovered, my mind has not. Paul sees that I'm pretty shaken up, sees the fear in my eyes, and asks if I'm ok. I tell him I'll give myself 30 minutes to rest and collect myself, then I'll return to the lift at noon.
I am in pain. I ask myself what I think I'm doing out here, thinking I can come and ride this mountain... Fear has arisen like a mist around me and now soaks my skin. I’m trembling.
I return to the truck with some pretty mean bruises on my elbow, knee, ankle, and shoulder (a nice red webbing pattern where the Dainese has left its mark). I am so shaken, my confidence is down to nothing. I am in pain. I ask myself what I think I'm doing out here, thinking I can come and ride this mountain... I ask myself if I haven't made a serious mistake with this whole downhill business... Although I try to focus on the things I have done right, Fear has arisen like a mist around me and now soaks my skin. I’m trembling. All I really want to do is hide and cry, and that's when my friends Chad and Josh show up.
Perhaps one of them should have said, with the appropriate North Jersey accent and all the finesse of Joey Soprano, "Do you need to cry? OK, you go to the lodge, you sit in the bathroom and cry it out. But do not upset other riders here because you're having a bad day. A crying female at a downhill race does the neanderthal energy level no good. How am I supposed to grunt and fart and enjoy it when you're sitting there in tears? (pause) You have 10 minutes. Get it done and get back here. Then we'll go ride." But that didn't happen. Instead I am informed that "There's no crying in downhill," and I have to choke it all back.
Josh offers to go back up with me and talk me though the sections I'm having trouble with. It is by sheer force of will and a stubborn refusal to quit that I change my shoes and pedals and set off with Josh for the lift. Truth be told, I’m still terrified.
The next run with Josh is better, and my third on my own is better yet. I'm still intimidated by the whole Downhill-at-Plattekill thing, but I'm more confident and relaxed. We all call it a day at about 4pm.
We awake to a steady light rain, which continues most of the day.
At 1:15 I line up in the gate and take off. I feel so good, so confident, so relaxed... everything is right where it needs to be.
I make two practice runs before the race and have the good fortune to catch up to Coach Mike, who is in the middle of a beginner-sport course clinic. I jump in just before the first nasty rocky descent that ends in the sharp 6-foot descent/drop. He advises us to walk as much of the rocky section as we need to, and tells us we should take the high line, hoisting our bikes over a fallen tree and continuing on the other side. Wow. Walking the high line hadn't occurred to me. I immediately improve my time and my confidence shoots up. A few more tips from Mike and I am ready to go and stoked about the race.
At 1:15 I line up in the gate and take off. I feel so good, so confident, so relaxed... everything is right where it needs to be. I enter that nasty rocky section and go through it smoothly, heft the bike up and over that log, then get back on the bike and descend the 6-foot plunge.
Pedal, pedal, pedal through the wet grass, charge back into the woods into another rocky section.
Where it is
that I go down, I don't remember, but when I scramble to get up and wrench the
bike from the vines and saplings it has fallen into, I unknowingly dislodge the
front brake lever. When I go to grab the front brake, it is dangling loose. I
try to pop the lever back in, figuring that's how it
works. It won't go. I try again. Still no good.
I conclude that the brake is broken, and that I simply have no choice... I get back on my bike and continue the race with no front brake.
I'm unfamiliar with this beautiful (new to me) bike. It's a Turner RFX and this is our first race together. I am poorly prepared for contingencies such as this, and I conclude that the brake is broken, and that I simply have no choice... I get back on my bike and continue the race with no front brake.
I emerge from the woods and onto the open field laced with switchbacks. The grass is wet, and speed control is crucial. I have none, as my back tire is caked with mud and my front brake is useless. I slide out of control on my right side as my arm shoots up above my head and I hear and feel a POP! in my right shoulder (the one I've been nursing ever since Gotta Thunder at Big Bear). NOOOO! I grab my right shoulder with my left hand and hug it to me, feeling another small POP! I roll the shoulder to make sure it moves OK, which it does. Get back on the bike and go!
From the open field it's back into the woods, then a small descent, but I exit the descent too fast and crash again, this time skewing the front tire from the bars. I stand over the bike and try to force it straight again, but with my weakened shoulder I'm not strong enough. Luckily there's a spectator there. "Help me!" I shout to him, and he jumps in and straightens my bars. "Thanks!" I shout. Get back on the bike and go!
I enter the second short, nasty, rocky, muddy section and make it through by dragging a foot and laying my stomach on the saddle. I've been over this drop coming up 5 times now and have done it every time. It doesn't occur to me that I should walk it because I've got no front brake! That's OK, flying's faster, just much less efficient. I glimpse the bike as it flips in the air over my head and I tumble head over feet to land on my helmet and chest with a WHUMP. I can't breathe. I roll onto my back gasping for air, and think to myself that there's no one around, I'm all alone here, but that I must not be too bad off because I don't have the overwhelming urge to rip off my helmet, and finally that I'm a real idiot for not stopping before going over the edge... Taking short gasping breaths, I get to my knees and look around for my bike. There it is waiting for me in the grass. I stumble over, pick up the bike and get back on. The clock is ticking.
It's the grassy off-camber section. I can't pedal. I stop again to discover that the chain is twisted in a knot and jammed in the front derailleur. It must have happened upon impact. I lean over and force it free. Get back on the bike and go!
I cross the finish line triumphant, having lost the battle, but won the war.
I continue, knowing I've already made it through the most difficult parts, and I try to control my speed down to the bottom of the course. I round a corner and a spectator yells, "Hey, No Brakes!" I think he's noticed the front brake lever dangling free, when I realize he's just read my jersey. Yep. No Brakes, I laugh to myself. Rounding the final corner with the finish line in sight, I shift into a higher gear and pedal for all I'm worth. I cross the finish line triumphant, having lost the battle, but won the war.
I stand panting at the finish line and see my friend Chad there. I indicate the dangling brake lever and tell him that I did most of the race with no front brake. He looks at it, cocks his head as if in surprise, reaches over and pushes the brake lever in with ease. I'm stunned. "What... How did you do that??" He blinks and casually says, "It's just a pin." I didn't think to align the pin when I tried to push in the lever. It was never broken.
I stand grinning at the absurdity of it all, and at the thought that in spite of all the difficulties, when it came to those things within my control, I did most everything right. I was relaxed, I let the bike roll, I didn't get rattled by the rain and the mud, or by falling so hard I couldn't breathe, or even losing my front brake. For being so afraid the day before, in drier conditions and with a mechanically sound bike, I did a remarkable job holding it together and remaining focused during the race. It never occurred to me to quit.
Of course my time was really bad, but I think if I hadn't spent so much time sprawled on the grass I might have been competitive. :-)
Today I'm pretty sore in the neck, sore in the shoulder (but I've got mobility!), fairly bruised on my legs and elbow, but otherwise feeling pretty good! I leave for West Virginia on Wednesday -- I'll be resting till then.
WHAT I LEARNED
Before a practice, go out and free ride a bit just to get loosened up and build your confidence. The mountain is intimidating as it is. Win as many mental battles against it as early as possible. Then go do your practice runs.
Walking a section is sometimes faster than riding it. Leave your ego back at the truck and walk through if you have to.
Know as much about the mechanics of your bike as possible!
The night before the race, think of anything BUT the race. You've practiced, you've gone over the course, you've done your homework. Now relax, let it go, and pick it up again in the morning.
No matter how many things go wrong, focus on those things that you did right, and let those other things melt away. Chances are you know what you need to do to improve, so don't let a poorly-done section/run ruin the rest of your practice or race.
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