It was another beautiful day at Snow Summit, up in the San Bernardino National Forest. Although it was warm in the afternoon, the sky was clear with a steady light breeze that kept the heat to a tolerable minimum.
…at Big Bear you wash out in loose dirt and dust, sending up clouds like smoke signals that tell all your buddies how you came into that corner too fast.
Unlike the East Coast, where you worry about traction over wet rocks and muddy trails, at Big Bear you wash out in loose dirt and dust, sending up clouds like smoke signals that tell all your buddies how you came into that corner too fast. If you find yourself following closely on the tail of the person in front of you, your visibility is instantly cut in half by the dust kicked up by your fellow rider’s back tire. And while the East Coast courses might be a bit more interesting and technical, snaking between densely wooded areas and over rock garden streams, Big Bear offers you the opportunity to find out just how fast your skill and nerves will let you fly down the trail before you launch on some seemingly insignificant bump in the trail.
The beginner/sport course today was down the Summit trail, a fast and open course that had only a few tight sections. Out of the chute, it’s downhill to the left where the trail suddenly cuts through a tight cluster of trees. Out of the woods, keep a high line through the sharp right that takes you to a dusty off-camber that drives across the mountain. Then it’s left again to head straight down in the wide open space that cuts underneath the chair lift and over toward the Westridge side of the mountain.
As you head down, you see the course markers that bring you into a loose S-shape in order to slow you down for the 90° turn that will plunge you straight down about 15 feet, leave you with another 15-20 feet of open area to control your velocity, then plunge you again between a few trees and over a few rocks down another 10 feet. You’re out in the open again and it’s pedal pedal pedal to a small climb, then down through a tight rocky section that spills out to another wide open fast trail that cuts across the mountain. Pedal pedal pedal across and then down, keeping your speed under control as you approach the tabletop and the potential launch pads that are approaching rapidly.
Plunge again through the loose rocks and dust on a wide section of track that cuts sharply right, opens up to a straightaway, the cuts left again. It’s all a matter of speed control and cornering to the bottom, then a final push across the finish line.
Out of the chute, down through the trees, looking good as I round the corner and… wash out in the dust just before that nasty off-camber section that you need speed to get through. What was that about approaching at a manageable speed and keeping a high line?? Through the off-camber, plunge down the trail, and it’s fast and fun! Then comes that 15-foot descent.
My second practice run (the best run I have) is the only one in which I approach that 15-foot descent in the right place, commit to it, and do it. My other runs, including both race runs unfortunately, saw me either washing out ¾ of the way down or hitting that root that lay right in the middle of the path. Thankfully it’s all soft dark earth that I find myself sprawled in. Back on the bike and down the next descent.
Out in the open, pedal pedal pedal! I approach the rocky section faster than I’m comfortable, and I hear myself repeating, “Relax. The bike will soak it up.” The bike cuts through the rocks like they’re so many pebbles.
I’m learning to trust the bike, learning to lean the bike in turns while keeping my body upright. With a bike like the Turner RFX, I’ve found that all I need to do is keep my speed within my ability to handle it (so as not to go airborne) and watch my form. This bike will do all the rest. It’s a beautiful thing.
I’m learning to trust the bike… I’m learning that small steps are OK to take too, and that I don’t have to push all the time to be proud of my effort.
The remainder of the course for me is all about speed control, cornering, and making sure my form is good. I’m near the end and hear a couple female voices call my name, cheering for me. Wow. Do I even know anyone up here? I want to make a good showing at the finish, stand and pedal across the line, but the speed I’m going is just on the outer edge of my comfort zone. I coast, and pedal just to maintain my speed. I’m learning that small steps are OK to take too, and that I don’t have to push all the time to be proud of my effort. I take 1st place.
I have enough time after my second downhill race run to pedal back to the condo where we’re staying, get a Gatorade and a half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and prepare for the Super D race. Donna, one of my roommates for the weekend, is my only competition in the Women 30-39 category. She returns to the condo as well, making a complete change of clothing and bike. Off comes the body armour and full-face helmet in favor of the lighter and better ventilated cross-country helmet and attire. She retains the elbow pads. Her downhill bike is exchanged for her lighter XC bike.
I look like I’m going into battle, while she looks like she’s taking an extreme ride across the golf course. I second-guess myself, and wonder if I should change, but I didn’t even bring my XC helmet… Oh well, I tell myself.
I still have those vivid images of my last time here at Big Bear (Gotta Thunder Downhill) when I took an unscheduled flight over-the-bars in the rock garden on Fall Line (how ironic), then another bad spill on Westridge. By the end of the Gotta Thunder race I was hurting so badly I could hardly move. Then the next time I got on a mountain bike was almost 3 weeks later at Diablo Freeride Park, where I foolishly followed a much better rider than me around a blind corner and over a 4-foot drop that I wasn’t expecting. I landed on my helmet. And while I did get up and get back on the bike and continue the ride, for the rest of the day I thought about my neck and I wondered when it was going to happen that I would turn my head casually and hear a snap, and suddenly not be able to feel my toes.
The fear slowly crept up my legs and stretched itself like a shadow across my chest and around my throat. And although I tried to shake it off by focusing on the things I was doing right or by doing some fun and easy riding, that fear clung to me like a vine. It stayed with me the following weekend at Plattekill, where I went over a 9-foot descent too fast and landed on my chest and helmet, knocking the wind out of me.
…fear slowly crept up my legs and stretched itself like a shadow across my chest and around my throat…
[it] clung to me like a vine.
Fear followed me into West Virginia to the NORBA Nationals. It refused to leave, no matter how many times I tried to breathe through it, no matter how many times I did the “Relax, you’re here to have fun” mantra. The smallest descents became terrifying, and my East Coast buddies, who have always known me to be aggressive and fearless, couldn’t understand why I stood for three minutes at the top of a 4-foot descent on the Snowshoe beginner/sport course before finally walking my bike down it, trembling. I made the mistake of looking for sympathy and advice from one of my East Coast friends who told me flatly with a shrug, “Welcome to downhill.” Unfortunately I didn’t know many women downhillers on the East Coast at that time, but I did have the good fortune to run into Joell at Snowshoe. Her positive attitude, sympathy for my fear, personal courage and strength by example helped me get through Snowshoe as well as I did. The fear subsided, but it was still there.
So here I am at Big Bear looking at the bi-polar XC course on steroids that is Super D. I know my body armour is staying on, as is the full-face helmet, at least until my head is cleared of the descent demons lurking there. The only trick I haven’t tried is time…
Donna and I make our way to the Super D course and have just enough time for a preview ride before the race.
The course starts at the top of Chair One on the backside of the white canopied start ramp. The short descent is immediately followed by a climb up a fire road, then levels out, winds around, and then descends again. This is where the fun begins, as you travel as fast as your skill will allow you down the dusty mountain fire road, onto a bit of track, then back onto fire road. The road is all light brown dirt and rock with sections of heavy dust as well as patches of rock beds. About half-way through there’s a long slow climb, then a descent that winds back and forth, around and down the mountain. Just when you think you’ve made it to the end, you climb through a 100-yard stretch known as the “Boneyard”. As if sucking wind wasn’t bad enough, you get to suck bad wind, as the aroma of the Boneyard, a dump of sorts, wafts through the air and into your lungs. Out of the Boneyard, keep a high line through the off-camber soft dirt to see the finish line in sight. Pedal for all you’re worth, then collapse on the other side of the timing clock.
This is really the greatest event for cross-country downhill fun without all the broken bones.
There’s only one other woman with a full-face helmet… the two teenage girls aren’t wearing any armour at all, and their mothers know it too.
It’s a gate start for everyone, with racers departing at 30-second intervals, just like downhill. The men go first, so we women stand around talking. There’s only one other woman with a full-face helmet and a bike that’s as heavy as mine; all the other girls have XC bikes. The two teenage girls aren’t wearing any armour at all, and their mothers know it too. That’s OK, I tell myself, I feel more secure in my fortress that is my clothing.
I line up in the gate, listen for the beeps that signal the start of my race, and take off. Down the descent, turn the corner, and start the climb, where I immediately lose my chain in shifting. Momentum gone, I push the bike up the hill as far as I think I have to, then hop on and go. Pedal Pedal Pedal!
Fire roads are really fun when you don’t have to worry about people on the road or spooking horses or running over someone’s Chihuahua on a leash. As fast as I wanna go, I’ve got the armour and the 6 inches front and rear to take me over almost anything, and man, is it fun! Slow down before the corner, tap the back brake as you lean the bike to slide the back tire around, then power out of the corner and down the hill.
I reach the long slow climb and bulldog my way up it. At Gotta Thunder I ended up pushing the Specialized (with one front chainring) that I’d borrowed from Gina up this hill. The Turner I have now grabs on and climbs. At the top of the hill I’m gasping and wishing I had a XC helmet so I could breathe. It occurs to me that I’m tired and riding sloppy, and I remind myself to remember my form, especially since I’m tired.
I hear the small rocks grinding under my tires in a din like almonds in a food processor… had I not heard the silence, I would not have known for certain that both wheels left the ground.
Just then I come to a section with half a dozen spectators who begin cheering when they see me. Thus encouraged, I stand and pedal, picking up speed just as I notice the bump ahead in the road. I hear the small rocks grinding under my tires in a din like almonds in a food processor, hit the bump in the road, and suddenly the din is silenced and I hear no trail under my tires for a second and a half, then I hear it once again. This bike is so smooth, that had I not heard the silence, I would not have known for certain that both wheels left the ground. My eyeballs pop open and my mouth drops and I mouth the word, “Cool…” as I focus on the berm in front of me, then turn my head to look ahead at the trail as I lean the bike and continue my run. I’ll have to revel in my short flight later.
I finally reach the Boneyard, which I had decided to dismount and run up. I didn’t count on the spectators cheering me to pound away and grind up the hill, though. I shift gears quickly and pound away, grinding up the hill. I make it a little more than half way before I’m spent. I dismount and run the rest of the way, wondering if I’m allowed to rip my helmet off before I finish the race. I get to the top and get on the bike, feeling like I’m ready to hurl at any moment, literally repeating to myself, “Almost there. Almost there…”
I remember to stay high for that off-camber, and I pedal with everything I have left and cross the finish line. Once past the timing clock, I pedal a few strokes to get to the side of the road, come to a stop, then bike and I lie side by side, a lump of grey, yellow and white that is me gasping beside the blue thoroughbred that is my bike wondering when the next race is. My bike loves to race.
When I finally get up, we receive 2nd place.
race report by Laura Drexler
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