On Saturday I raced the final race of the Non Dot O.C. Classic race series at Caspers Wilderness Park.
This time around, I wanted another podium spot, but more importantly, I wanted to learn from the first race and make better decisions.
The Strava Flyby of the Santiago Oaks race showed that the winner had gone clear of the pack really quickly. I was determined not to miss the jump this time.
So, when this race started, I went with the fast guys. The Caspers course starts on a nice wide, paved road and there was plenty of space, and the rider pushing the pace had lined up right next to me. So I quickly dropped in behind him and got pulled along behind. All I had to do was stick with the white jersey.
Three of us broke away along the paved road, with me sitting #2. I checked my GPS, and my HR was only about 165 bpm, far more under control than last time, but I still had my doubts. If White Jersey continued to hammer once we started up the ridge, I'd be forced to let him go.
Evidently, that's exactly what the rider behind me was thinking. He dropped back well before starting the climb, no doubt betting that White Jersey and I were going out too hard, and would pay the price later.
As we started the first climb, I kept checking behind us. At first I thought I could see a few riders from our division, but we soon had what looked like a sizable gap.
White Jersey was setting an aggressive pace, but I felt like we were fairly evenly matched. I stayed on his wheel most of the way up the east ridge, content to let him set the tempo.
I knew the rider who'd let us go earlier was right. I knew this wouldn't last. I knew I couldn't hold that pace through the second lap. I knew I'd fade.
But I also knew it was a short race. We were nearly done with the first of two climbs. And I figured that if he didn't fade, then the race would be his regardless. And if he did, I wanted to be there to take advantage, if I could.
I was in the lead over the top, and I let the bike run through the fork in the trail and onto the downhill. I figured we'd put some more time into the riders behind us, and see which of us would come out ahead on the second lap up the climb.
We hit the gravelly downhill hot, and as I started to dial back the speed, the rider ahead of me fishtailed. That kicked up enough dust that I couldn't get a clear look at the line, and I heard brakes behind me, and started to lose traction and swing wide to the right, toward a rough-looking rut.
I was going too fast to hold a line inside the rut, so I did the only thing I could: I tried to ride the berm that was outside the rut. Unfortunately, I ended up too upright on the berm and got dumped into the bushes.
White Jersey pulled around (while checking that I was okay), and I took a few seconds to check myself and my bike, and then got back in the race.
White Jersey was gone, man. But I'd been watching the riders that passed me, and figured I was still in second place. I still had a bit of a gap left behind me, and if White Jersey was going to fade, then he was still going to fade, and I still wanted to be there when it happened.
So I kept the pressure on, tried to find fast, smooth riders to follow, and ripped as fast as I could down the back stretch and through the starting area.
I hustled along the paved road and up the East Ridge Trail again, hoping to catch sight of White Jersey and start reeling him in. But as I reached the top of the climb up East Ridge, I knew he'd probably stay away. The rest of the race was largely downhill, and there are just not that many places to press any advantage on the back stretch, and I knew I didn't have an advantage anyway.
So I just tried to make sure nobody caught me. By my counting, I was in second, with first nowhere in sight, and third a distant straggler behind me. So I just kept an eye out for anyone catching up, and pulled for home.
And then, on the last half mile, I spotted it: a white jersey bobbing up a short rise. I cranked with everything I had left, and closed the gap.
As I drew closer, I could see that this might be a different white jersey than the one I'd been chasing. And when I got closer still, I could see the writing on his calf: "S3", for Sport (30-39). Not my division. Rats.
And just like that, we were into the finishing chute and done. I pulled through the corral, exhausted, to take second place.
White Jersey was standing with his bike right near the finish line.
Dude was a class act. Asked if I was okay, and said that it sucked that I crashed, because that's not how he wanted to win. I laughed and said, "Dude, this is a mountain bike race. Bike handling is part of it!" He piloted his bike at speed through a dicy downhill without crashing, and kept the pressure on through the second climb. That's a deserving winner any day.
I discovered at the award ceremony that third place had been taken by the rider I'd tried to pass at the end of the previous race. We both laughed as we recognized each other. I asked what happened, and he said that White Jersey and I had just taken off so fast that he decided to let us go. After that, he never saw us again.
If anything, I feel like all of that validated my decision to stay with the leaders from the jump. That's what put me in posision to crash and still stay in the race.
But I also failed to think strategically about the dicy downhill where I crashed. I knew we had a gap, and I knew from my pre-ride what the downhill was like. Those things afforded me an opportunity to take my time and just get through the gravel safely. Instead, I was super-focused on pushing the pace and blew my chance to win.
After looking at the official times and checking my own data on Strava, it looks like the crash cost me about 40 seconds. And White Jersey and I were really evenly matched. My first lap was just 38 seconds slower than his, and my second lap was just 7 seconds slower. And in the end, I finished just 45 seconds out of first place. Had I kept the rubber side down, anything could have happened.
And that's what happens when you're learning something new: if you don't repeat past mistakes, you get to make all new ones.
I had a great time at this race, and ended up talking to some really cool people afterward. The folks at Non Dot Adventures did an amazing job setting everything up, managing what could have been a rough parking situation, and attracting a crowd that's all smiles and good conversation. Everyone I talked to wanted to have a great race, but they also wanted everyone else to have a great race too.
It really is something special, and I can't wait to line up for the first race of 2016.