Going into the race, I had two plans.
Go out fast and get near the front before the first singletrack climb (Mountain Goat), then maintain position up Bumblebee, step heavy on the gas up Oaks, and burn whatever matches I have left on Coachwhip. Get a short rest going down Chutes, then keep it pinned all the way to the finish.
I think I can do a 50-minute lap. Judging by last year's results, that puts me in shouting distance of the podium. So if I find myself sliding back on the first fire road, then the whole plan changes. I'll just ride my pace, and pick off riders as I can.
So... yeah. That was my brilliant pan. Plan A is ride fast and pass people, and Plan B is... ride not-as-fast and pass people.
Bike racing is weird.
Anyway, the only two things I genuinely wanted to avoid: mechanical trouble, and wrong turns. Both are stupid, stupid reasons to fail at bike racing.
And I had just one genuine goal for the race: finish my lap in under 50:00. I thought I could do it, but I wasn't sure at all. I wanted something I could point to and say, "I hit my target time, and had fun. Whatever else happened, that's a good day."
There were 11 registered Beginner Men (30-39) riders going into the race, and 2 more joined on race day, so the starting line wasn't crowded. And everyone seemed to be there just to have fun. Great crowd. At one point one of the riders asked about strategy, and we all agreed: definitely burn out your legs sprinting off the line.
And then we got the countdown, and the race official yelled, "GO!" and we were off.
I immediately found myself sliding backward in the pack as we zippered into the first short stretch of singletrack, but the pace was easy, and I was with the lead group, so I didn't sweat it.
Once we reached the Willow fire road, the group picked up speed and we were all cruising along. I was wary of burning out my legs too soon, but found myself passing people... easily. I decided I'd keep doing it as long as it was just me holding a steady pace.
And then I was in the lead.
I knew it wouldn't last, but I was happy to get to pick my own line through the dogleg on Willow. I checked my GPS, which said my heart rate was 176, so I made a conscious decision to back off a bit. And then we were at the dam, and two or three guys pulled around me on the short climb there.
Starting up Mountain Goat, I totally lost track of my place in the pack. I figured 4th, maybe 5th. We'd caught the back of the Beginners (29-) pack, so it got a little tough to see where everybody was.
(I hadn't yet realized that I can (Duh!) just look at the back of everyone's calf to see what category they're in. Beginners (29-) had, "B2" on their calf. Beginners (30-39) (my category) had, "B3", and so on.)
Anyway. At the bottom of Bumblebee the guy I was trailing waved me around, and I found myself mostly alone. Chasers were maybe 20 seconds back, and the guys ahead of me were... where? Around a switchback somewhere, maybe. No clue. Stick to the plan: push the pace here and hope someone ahead fades.
I caught a couple other riders on the top half of Bumblebee, and finally got my passing game together: hold the pace, call out "on your left", and go, decisively, the very minute I was sure my pace was stronger than theirs.
I tried to pour on the gas up Oaks Fire Road, but found I was already pretty close to my limit. So, I did the mental flip into let the legs scream, I don't care mode and did what I could. I remembered my last ride, and tried to make the most of the short downhill reprieve on oaks, breathing deep and staying off the brakes.
Somewhere in all that, I finally learned to other riders' calves to see what category they were in, and I started doing the math. About four guys went ahead of me up Goat, I think I passed one, so I might be sitting third. Or, y'know... seventh, if my usual ride and do math skills held.
Whatever. The guy that was chasing me up Oaks passed hard and made a beeline for the Yucca downhill. I figured if he thought the downhill was his moment, I'd let him have it, and do my best to follow his line.
Turns out his line was good, and my following was okay, because I was right behind him starting up Coachwhip. I checked his calf: B4, for Beginners (40-49). Good. I'm not sliding back in my category. Still: where the hell are the B3 leaders?
So I pinned it. At every point where Coachwhip leveled out, I'd jump to the middle ring. I found a rhythm: middle for the level sections, little ring for the switchies. Minimal fussing with the cogs. I stayed on the gas, kept my rhythm, and opend a gap on the riders behind me. It was working.
Until it wasn't. I hit the trigger to drop to the little ring and... fffffffffffffff. Dropped chain.
I stopped, dismounted, shifted to the middle ring again, and spun the pedals. They caught immediately, and I was back on my bike and rolling through the next switchback just as the rider behind caught me. Not as fast as it could have been, but not a disaster. (The correct method for dealing with this is noted below.)
I picked the same horrible line down Barham Ridge as last week and nearly wrecked trying to pull the Shaolin serenely floating wheels of speed maneuver over a totally optional rock garden. I am an idiot.
The pre-ride served its purpose, though. I knew exactly where the turnoff for Chutes was, so took the fork without having to think about it. Only the Beginner categories were using this trail (the others were routed down the Chutes Ridgeline), which was awesome. It cleared away some of the traffic, and I could be reasonably sure that I was actually chasing people in my category.
But still: I've been pinning it for 30 minutes now. Where the hell are the B3 leaders?
Finally, after switchbacking downward as fast as my timid beginner heart doth dare, I spotted a guy in blue with "B3" on his calf. Awesome! He took the right-hand option at the creek crossing, and I took the direct line passed him and opened a gap heading into the Roadrunner singletrack.
But we were coming down to the wire here. I checked my time: 44 minutes and change. I knew that we had just another turn or two before the finish. Either I was winning (not possible), the leaders had already finished (for motivational purposes, I deemed this also not possible), or there were still riders out here to chase.
I realized they were probably tired. Because I was tired. This made me smile. I was not tired any more.
Just out of the singletrack, I spotted him: green jersey, B3 on his calf. I passed him easily, but quickly realized I'd screwed up the follow-through: he was still with me.
So I poured on the gas and headed for the finish, hoping he didn't have the gas to pull around.
Alas, about 40 yards from the finish, he demonstrated that he certainly did have the gas to get by me. He rolled through so smoothly that I didn't even try to go with him. "It's my first race," I thought. "I'm not gonna fight you for it. Couldn't if I wanted to."
I crossed the line panting and grinning. I had no clue how I'd placed, but I'd crushed my 50:00 target time: 47:05.
And the icing on the cake came once I'd had a chance to pee, change into clothes that were dry and smelled not at all like garbage fermenting in the summer sun, and eat half a banana.
I'd taken 3rd place! (Official results.) Pretty great. I feel good about that, and it matters not a wit that I finished 3rd among Beginners (30-39).
I can't imagine a better way for my first-ever mountain bike race to turn out. I had a blast, beat my target time, and got to stand on the podium.
So yeah, I'll be at the next one. Can't wait!
The correct procedure for dealing with a dropped chain: If you have some momentum, keep pedaling (slowly) and shift to the middle ring. This will re-mount the chain. If you don't have momentum, stop, lift the back tire by squeezing the front brake and pressing forward on the bars, shift to the middle ring, and turn the cranks with your foot. (One foot on the ground, one foot clipped in.) This will re-mount the chain way faster than getting off and spinning the cranks with your hand, like I did, because I wasn't thinking clearly. There's a helpful instructional video here.