“Crown Of Thorns” – Report from race 1 in the Oregon XC series

Echo Red to Red XC  – March 3rd 2012

Three ‘P’s’ guide me pre race: Prep, Pump and Potty. I’m sure some racers would add ‘pray’ into that list. The only helpful prayer I know is ‘Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.’ And by battle I mean a mountain bike race and by wickedness I mean mechanicals.

Echo Red to Red is my first cat 1 cross-country race since I upgraded this year and it’s time to test the legs.  Having raced this course last year, I know what to expect terrain wise (sandy, rocky and lots of rollers), and I feel confident that I can lay down a good time on the 28 mi course. Oh yeah, and I have a goal time of 2 hours and 45 min but no more than 3 hours. I based that plan on the times put up last year by the cat 1 women.

Weather is nice, sunny and 45 degrees in the morning with the highs going to the mid 50’s. The wind on the other hand is miserable. 35 mph. Most mountain bike races are in the woods so you don’t really deal with the wind unless the course puts you on exposed gravel roads. Echo however, has little in the way of shelter. Rolling plains, rocks, tall grass and arid climate shrubs, just big enough for a rabbit to hide behind.

I couldn’t hear all of the pre race instructions at line up but the course was well marked last year so I didn’t figure getting lost would be an issue.  At 11:00 am we begin our 1 mile neutral roll out behind a large pick up truck on the main paved road out of town. My teammates Beth Ann, Lisa and Laurie are in the mix, with the cat 1 men/women and singlespeeders going out first. New faces to race against in this category and familiar ones like Laura Trace (still unattached but not for lack of recruiting efforts from other teams). I can see our turn off coming up and positioned myself in the inside of the turn (shortest line) and I’m flirting with the yellow line in the road. Heart is racing a little because once we hit the turn, the neutral flag will drop and it’s a 3 mile race to single-track. Oh no….. What is that squishy feeling? Looking down, the painful reality of a rear flat smacks me harder than the unrelenting wind gusts. Crap! Exiting out of the pack to the shoulder, I hear someone say ,”awwww, Mielle”. Yeah exactly. Pulling my camelbak off to retrieve my only spare tube, I hurry to get the tire off to inspect the damage.  A Clydesdale (Micheal-unattached) warming up for his race rolls up and offers to help. I’m glad he did because he informed me that my rear tire was covered in ‘goat heads’. These are new hazard to me but I guess the wind had blown them all over the road and my tire was the clean up crew. Horny goat head thorns are no bigger the tip of a really sharp pencil. Some thorns broken off, leaving the pointy end on the inside of the tire. Pulling these things out and getting ALL of them took some time. I realize that I should have replaced these worn tires before this race but nothing I can do about it now. Michael put my rear tire on my bike while I got my gear tucked back in my pack and gloved up. I’m off to catch the field but I know my down time means the next wave of riders will catch me shortly.

Turning onto the gravel road with farm land on both sides, the wind from the right is so strong that it is literally whistling through my wheels and blowing me sideways like a ragdoll. Nowhere to hide, I just have to push to get over the rollers to the single track. The constant crosswind is making it hard to hold any line in the loose gravel. Looking over my shoulder, I spot a freight train of men kicking up the dust, coming for me in a storm of carbon and Lycra. Cat 2’s/clydesdales overtake me and friendly faces say hello as they speed past. In a fit of self-preservation I call out, “I already had a flat!!” Just looking for a little shelter from the wind and my friend Dave German (Hammer Velo) shows up right on time. “Just stay right there” he says, pulling up on my right, blocking me from the air assault. I push hard to stay with this group and just as the men start to pull away, we arrive at the gate entrance, filing us onto the single track.

I’m feeling good now that I’m in the mix and trying to gain some ground to catch the back of my field. The wind is impossible to get away from and just as you get a brief tailwind, the course gives you a right hander uphill back into the wind. Somewhere around mile 7, I notice my front end is feeling squirrely as I am descending the dry, sandy switchbacks while I’m tucked into a field of men. Could be my bike handling in the dusty conditions? Two seconds later I washed out and hit the ground HARD on my right side. With all of these men behind me I immediately curled into a ball and covered my head to avoid getting run over. “I’M BLOCKING YOU! Are you OK?” Another guy had pulled up behind me so I could jump up and get moving. “Yeah, I’m fine, thanks”. Oh but my bike was not so fine and my ass really hurt (took a chunk of skin out). Dropped chain was no big deal, tried to put it back on but my crank wouldn’t turn. Tried to shift but nothing would move. Bent derailleur hanger? Totally guessing here. Friends are passing, asking if I’m ok. I reply, “Yeah but I think I bent my derailleur hanger”. Another rider yells that I should just “bend it back”. Taking my rear wheel off and putting it back, on I am finally able to get my crank to move and I’m off, for about 5 seconds. Front tire is going flat. Ahhhh. Makes sense now. Might have been why I crashed (blame the equipment not the skills). Pulling off again a nice spectator named Michael came over to offer any assistance. More comments from friends in other groups as they passed me on the side hill, making sure I was ok.  I had to borrow another tube (thanks to Tireless Velo!) and another chunk of time was spent pulling out more pokey thorns. I did let Michael assist in pumping up my tire with my tiny pump (still holding back on using my co2 cartridge) and I was off again.

Ok, so catching my group might be a pipe dream now since the cat 3 and juniors have passed me. But I’m back up doing my best, passing many of these riders again. Splitting off at the CAT 1 sign, I know I will mostly be on my own for a while until the trails link up again. Coming upon a U of O clad rider (complete with matching yellow and green argyle knee highs) on the high side of a grassy slope, he is sitting there, elbows on knees with his wheel off like he is waiting for a ride home. Checking to make sure he is ok, he said he needed a co2 cartridge to get moving. “Oh, you can have mine. I have a pump.” He was hesitant to take it but I told him I had already gone through two flats and my pump worked fine. How much worse could it get for me at this point?

Mile 11…the herd has thinned to a trickle around me. The all too familiar squish radiates through my bike from my now flat rear tire and I’m stuck again. Really? Come ON!  With the undulating hills and never ending switchbacks, it’s impossible to know where “home” would be if I wanted to just go back to the car and call it a day. I’m out of tubes so the walking starts and looking at my odometer, it’s a long walk to the finish. I only have a couple patches in my bag and the way my day is going, that won’t be enough to fix my thorny problem. A nice guy from Portland Velo stops and gives me a tube so I can try and finish the race. Wouldn’t you know it, pulling off my tire, I found one stupid thorn. Just one. I went to use the tube PV gave me and realized it was for a 29’r and I’m on a 26. Tube is too big.  A female rider stops and gives me a tube but the valve is busted. I’m about out of options here and ready to patch the tube I have when I get one last guy stopping with a tube. The only positive thing was I had plenty of time to eat and get my calories in with all of this stopping crap.  A young guy rolls by as I am gearing up to get back on the bike. Frustrated with his day, he exclaims, “two flats today and been out here forever. I’m tired and just looking for an exit”. Me? I’m going to try and finish. Body and bike are not broken, yet. Even with all of this, I’m still in pretty good spirits. It is dry and sunny after all.

Climbing up to the last aid station I know this is the point of no return because I will be alone on the last cat 1 trail. There are little wire flags in the ground indicating where I need to go but many have been blown down or run over so I am just going where I think I should be going based on the trail in front of me. I heard there was a water crossing somewhere near the end but it never appears.  Also was told I should save some energy for the last soul sucking climb that breaks everyone. My climbing feels pretty good so either I missed an entire section or those riders were just having a bad day (I did miss a section after all. Doubt anyone cares if I missed 2 miles at this point). Fatigue is coming simply because I’ve been out here so long. Crossing over a single track ditch, my eyes look where I don’t want to go, balance lost and I fall right into the ditch under my bike. At least nobody was there to see how dumb that was. Scratched and a little blood but nothing major.

Mile 24 and the scenery starts to look more familiar. I can hear people cheering as I roll to the final checkpoint. Outside of this gate is the last gravel road that leads to the paved finish. One last climb, then mostly downhill in the crosswind. Nobody to draft today but once I hit the paved road with 1 mile to go I have a sweet tailwind and I can put some power down. Rolling through the finish, my time was 3 hrs 55 minutes to be the last cat 1 lady to finish. All I can do is laugh. I got through the day with grit, determination and a little help from my two St Michaels.

Anybody know where I can recycle five pounds of extra tubes?

Guess how many spent tubes in my pack and win a prize

Laurie and Beth Ann had a way better day. Congrats on the Win Beth!



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