I’m not going to lie. I was a bit nervous about heading back to this race again, and it looked like it was a sure bet that we were in for some muddy conditions too. If you weren’t already aware, I had a nasty crash at this race that netted me a 4 day vacation to the University of Virginia ICU last year, so surely that was going to be on my mind the entire race. My wife Michelle made the trip down with me again. Not sure who was more nervous, her or me.
With the wet conditions, I decided not to take any chances and I mounted up my trusty 2.4” Racing Ralph tires. Maybe a little overkill, but a little more control is always welcome. When I hit the pavement rollout at the start, I could feel the drag of the tires immediately and I thought, “this could be a long day.” I made it over the first climb in relatively decent position. I did the best I could on the descent and formed a little group out on the dirt rds with Zach Morey, and Evan Plews. We made our way out to the 2nd climb. Normally I struggle on this one, but I was keeping Evan in site, and cleaning most everything all the way to the top thanks to the grip of the monster tires.
I took my time on the descent and carefully picked my way down the mountain. A few guys passed me, and I was losing quite a bit of time. When I got to the bottom, I heard someone yell that Evan and Rob Spreng were about 1min up. I threw it into the trucker gear (42-11) and went to work. By the time I reached aid 2, I had bridged back up to Rob and Evan. It was a pretty big effort. Heading up the 3rd climb, Evan just had a little bit too much power and I popped off the back. I muscled my way through the rain to the top. I looked back, and no one was in site. The descent was a little tricky and before I reached the bottom, Rob Spreng had caught me, and just like that, he bridged what was probably more than a 2 minute gap.
We ripped through aid 3, and head out to the 4th climb. I could see Christian up the road, but decided chasing him down was probably not worth the effort as the next climb was steep and techy and I was going to need to be recovered. We made our way up, and I was able to distance myself from Rob, but got passed by another rider. I tip toed down the descent, and like magic, Rob was right back on me at the bottom. Heading out to the sole crusher, Rob let me go on the dirt rds. I got super close to bridging to the rider who passed me earlier on the climb, but once the road turned up, he was long gone. The fatigue was starting to creep in, and pushing those 2.4” tires up the soggy dirt roads was really starting to bog me down. Just as I reached the top, Bryan Astell caught and passed me. I hung for a few minutes, but the wheels were starting to fall off.
I got to the top and gathered myself for a moment. I dropped into the descent and prepared to clean the downhill that almost took my life exactly one year ago. This was the moment of the race for me. It was like challenging someone again who had stabbed me and left me for dead in an alley. But I faced the attacker and gingerly made my way down eagerly awaiting to pass the spot where I crashed last year… butt cheeks fully clenched. The descent was super rocky and sketchy and I was all over the brakes, using every square inch of those 2.4” tires to slow myself down. I even had a few close calls, but that’s probably because of the nerves and how tense I was. My triceps were burning and my hands were cramping from the death grip I had on the brake levers. I passed the crash site and felt a huge moment of relief. I made my down to the bottom and ironically enough, Kevin Carter passed me, just like last yr. My wife Michelle was there, and I could see that she was overly relieved.
We blew through aid 6, but I could tell the wheels were still falling off. One little push uphill from Kevin Carter, and I went into complete bonk mode. It didn’t matter how much coke I slugged down, pushing the big tires and the nerves had cooked me. I made my way up the last climb and several more riders passed me on the way to the finish. I got to the line and I was so happy it was over.
Doing this race again made me realize that at some of these courses, in order to do well, you have to be able to take some risks on the downhills to be competitive. Some of the guys passing me had full on slick tires and I don’t know how they were doing it. I used to approach a descent and just not think about anything other than staying off the brakes as much as possible. Now, so many things go through my head on a descent. I look at things a lot differently and I get easily spooked. I see a big tree, a steep gully, or a wet root and think of them as things that could send me careening head first into an early grave. Perhaps it’s just because I know what the consequences are. I'm not sure I'll ever get over it. 2 minutes of extra time on a descent can easily turn into 4 days in the ICU. But I suppose there’s always going to be risks associated with racing a mountain bike. It’s all about what you feel comfortable with. I’m not sure I’ll ever come back to this course (or ones like it) again. I kind of feel like I’m gambling with a little too much.