Summary: Cool and overcast in Phoenix for the Nationals Super D. Terrain is cactus and kitty litter. Course is really... whatevery, but not a very steep whatever. Pros get mooned. I pass her, she passes me, I pass her. Grrrr! I love racing.
It’s early afternoon on Friday when I head out the 8 Freeway going east toward Arizona, and the mountain bike race that awaits me. I don’t go far before I see another car with a mountain bike strapped on a roof rack, and conclude that they must be going to the NORBA Nationals too. After all, they have a mountain bike and they’re headed east – where else could they possibly be going??
I text message my friend Kim to let her know I’m on the way, and periodically update her with my progress. Half-way into the trip, I key into my phone pad, “Approaching Gila Bend, AZ. No sign of any monsters. Will maintain vigilance.” In this manner, I amuse myself for a good hundred miles, and then finally arrive in Phoenix around 9pm. Kim lives about 45 minutes from the race venue, and the three of us staying with her make our plans for the following morning when we’ll go to practice the Super D course.
Saturday morning we arrive at McDowell Park and find that this course is “self-shuttle” to the top. Super D, being a “gravity event,” usually requires either a truck or a chairlift to take you to the top of the course. The lack of either one suggests that we Super D-ers are either the red-headed step-children of the NORBA Nationals, or that perhaps this course does not really constitute such a “gravity” event after all. Or both. As I take the Turner RFX off the car rack, I see Bobby Bondurant, another downhiller racing Super D, who has just pre-ridden the course. He advises me to take the lightweight XC bike instead of the Turner, commenting that the Super D is more like a XC course. “You won’t need those pads, either,” he adds, referring to the shin guards and chest protector I’m wearing. I hesitate, but then remember that it’s Bobby I’m talking to, and even if he is older than me he’s over-the-edge fearless. So I compromise, taking the lightweight XC bike, but keeping the body armour, and load my bike in Donna’s truck to shuttle up the hill.
As it happens, the course is just as Bobby says. It requires nothing more than a light XC bike, and no armour at all. Much of the course is flat, with as many climbs as descents, some really fun winding singletrack, and fast, open fire roads – nothing really technical or difficult. This course will be challenging because it will require strength and endurance. The scenery is amazing, and only in Arizona would you find as many variety of cactus just waiting to snag your jersey or bite into your tires. There is nothing cushy at all to fall in should you take an unscheduled flight over the bars, and you are as likely to fall into cactus as rock. The terrain is mostly fine gravel, and at times I feel like I’m trying to corner in kitty litter. I live for this kind of thing.
It’s an overcast chilly day in the desert outside Phoenix and most of us are wearing arm and knee warmers when we assemble at 4 pm at the top of the Super D course. They’ve threatened us with a Le Mans start, which can be up to a quarter-mile long, but when we see Pat Follett painting the lines on the pavement about 100 feet apart, we know it won’t be too bad. We’ll go off in three waves: pros, non-pro men, then non-pro women. We’re to line up behind the blue line, run to our bikes that we’ve placed behind the red line a hundred feet away, and head immediately onto the singletrack. As the announcer tells us to be sure to pick up our own bike, one of my teammates who has brought a heavy bike in anticipation of a steep technical Super D course gets a gleam in his eye as he looks around surveying the other bikes. We know what he’s thinking. “Steve, you have to grab your own bike…” “No, no,” he laughs, “this could work out really well. I just need to make sure the pedals are the same…”
The pros line up down the road behind the blue line, and suddenly Donna spins around to me with an impish grin and says, “Laura, c’mon! Let’s moon ‘em!” I laugh and think this is really funny, but then I realize she’s serious. I can’t do it. My silliness is limited to things you can tell your mother about, like wearing a feather boa during a downhill race. Of course, mere seconds later she finds several accomplices, and when the whistle blows, the moon comes out! Donna and a half a dozen others drop their shorts and slap their cheeks, taunting the pros running towards them. Whoops and shouts are heard amidst the sound of bike cleats pounding on pavement as the pros rush to their bikes and the race begins.
Three minutes later, the non-pro men go off, then another three minutes later, it’s our turn. There are perhaps 15 of us women ranging in age from about 12 to over 40. I know two of the women in my race category, Lisa and Kim, and I suspect that they’re both stronger, better riders than me. What I lack in strength and skill, I’ll have to make up for in grit and determination.
We all line up and the countdown begins. I shake my hands out and shift my weight from one foot to the other. When the whistle blows I take off in a sprint and am one of the first 5 to reach the bikes and head for the trail. I’m not on the trail for more than a minute before I’m passed by Lisa and Donna. Kim has still not passed me, and I push hard trying to keep ahead. I’m at about mile 2 when I notice her right beside me and hear her say, “On your left.” Curses! Race etiquette dictates that I yield the trail to her, so I move the right of the trail and let her by, all the while thinking that I’ll let her go now and then down the road I’ll charge again and get in front of her. I stay close on her wheel and pray that she doesn’t slow down unexpectedly. I’m so close to her I can’t see the trail well, and rely on her body movements to tell me how to ride. While I have great confidence in her riding ability, I realize that following this close at this speed is stupid, so I back off just a bit and look for a chance to pass.
My opportunity comes on the fire road just before we plunge back onto singletrack. There are four of us in a tight pack vying for the place out front: Kim on the left, a young girl on her right, I, directly behind Kim, and another young girl on my right. I see a space between Kim and the girl and charge, cutting across the weeds that have grown up between the worn tire-tread patches of the fire road, hoping that none of the weeds are small cactus. I pull out in front just in time to hit the singletrack that winds down and snakes through the shallow canyon.
The problem with being in front is that you don’t know how hard you have to push to stay ahead of your competition. Maybe your competition is tired, and you can relax a bit, save a little for later… Following the leader, all you have to do is keep up and wait for the leader to tire, then charge and pass. But I’ve always performed better when I’m out front, and prefer to stay ahead if I can. I continue to push hard, knowing that Kim is right there somewhere close behind me, waiting to pass me the moment I let up. I stay out front and don’t look back, knowing she’s right there anyway.
Somewhere around mile 8 I struggle to the top of another climb and feel like my legs will not last much longer, like I’m ready to hurl at any moment, like I just want this course to end. Then I hear her coming alongside me. “Passing left,” she says quietly, then adds, “Good job, Laura.” I manage to wheeze, “Thanks. Good job, you too,” as she pulls ahead of me. I keep pedaling, repeating to myself, “Circles. Circles. Circles,” as I try to keep my form good, knowing I tend to ride sloppy when I’m tired. I take a sip of water. This ain’t over till it’s over, I think, and concentrate on staying on Kim’s wheel till I have enough strength to charge and pass.
The opportunity comes soon enough, and I see a space, tell her, “Passing right,” and charge ahead. I stand and pedal for all I’m worth, knowing that this will probably be my last opportunity to pass and I need to put as much space between us as possible. I wind through the singletrack that is fun and flowy, grateful for a chance to recover. The course is coming to an end soon and all I need to do is push for another 5 minutes. I crest a hill and my heart sinks to see that the descent is followed by a nasty climb on the other side. But there are people cheering, and I hear them encourage the girl ahead of me as she climbs to the top. I hear a man shout, “C’mon it’s the last climb!” and I charge with everything I have, standing in the saddle and letting out a guttural growl that prompts the crowd to cheer for me. I roar my way to the top, crest the hill and continue pedaling towards the finish.
As I approach the finish line, I hear my name called along with my team name, and then my finishing time. I pedal past my teammates who have already finished and head to an open space where I can pedal for a few minutes and cool down. I take a few moments alone to assess the race and think about the things I did right and the things I can improve on, the things I liked about the race, and the things I didn’t like.
I sprinted as hard as I could in the run in order to hit the trail first, which was a good decision. Past that, my race strategy was good, but unplanned. I didn’t plan to charge and pass just before the singletrack that made passing difficult if not impossible, but it was a good strategic decision. I washed out a couple times in those loose kitty litter turns. I really need to work on my cornering – learning to weight the outside leg and lean the bike. I didn’t necessarily like that this Super D was more XC than DH, but it did make the course unique and challenging. And finally the thing I liked most about this race was having Kim there to challenge me and push me to limits I would not have pushed myself to alone. That was probably the best part about it.
At the end of the day, I took a hard fought 4th place.
race report by Laura Drexler
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