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Test to destruction: The Keith Bontrager diary 2006
Keith Bontrager is best known as the bike and component design guru behind his eponymous road and mountain bike components, but behind the scenes the man universally known as KB is an enthusiastic and well-respected endurance mountain bike racer.
KB has taken part in a over 50 24-hour races in the last few years, and in his diary takes us inside the mental, physical and technical challenges of long-distance mountain bike racing while juggling the demands of an active interest in the successful international business he began all those years ago.
A tale of two races, December 2, 2006
The tale: Part one
My season ends with a 2 week road trip around the Great Basin in the southwest. The conditions are a bit of a shock after coming back from Yorkshire, and it is a very long drive. But these are the last races of the year and there is a lot of good riding to do along the route.
The first stop this year was in Pinetop, AZ for Epic Rides event there, the Tour of the White Mountains. The race had been going on for some time, though I had never heard of it. But this was the first year Todd (Sadow - Exalted Ruler at Epic Rides) was involved, and his newsletter made it clear that this was a going to be a good one. 66 miles of singletrack is all he had to say. Thats right - the race course was billed as 66 miles of singletrack.
Normally I think of cactus, rock and sand when I think about riding in Arizona, and thats what I had in mind this time too. Rocky singletrack is on the top of my list. Sandy singletrack is fine with me as long as it isnt too soft. And riding in(to) cactus is not that much fun, but a little can add some local spice.
I was wrong, about the terrain anyway (not about the cactus). Pinetop is in the mountains in eastern Arizona, at fairly high altitude. There are pine trees there, lots of them. It is shady and even chilly at night in October. People ski nearby in the winter time. It is not the desert. I was shocked, pleasantly.
I pulled in, got a local trail map at the ranger station and went off to find a trail, which was easy. The singletrack was there - tight, twisty, rocky slalom runs in the trees, a bit technical but not deadly, top notch stuff. And there was lots of it most of which was very close to town. Wow.
The rock on the trails was trippy. Its volcanic spew gone cold - that red, porous rock people used to use as ornamental ground cover in landscaping back in the 60s (Yes - I am giving my age away here). For those of you that missed that period, or lived in an area that was a little less insane than the Northern California burbs, it is crushed into walnut sized chunks and spread into confined areas in a front yard. In the highest form of the art there were many small divided areas, alternating with red and white rock. Dunno where the white rock came from but it wasnt from Pinetop. It sucked in a rock fight because it was like sponge, with no weight and poor aerodynamics. River run rock was the ammo of choice there, smooth oblate objects with Frisbee-like characteristics in flight.
Anyway, on the trial in AZ it was kind of crunchy, a bit slippery when it was loose, but fine as a riding surface once you got the hang of it.
It turns out that Pinetop is fairly advanced as a community in their approach to outdoor activities. Instead of focusing on golf courses to attract people to come and live there, they are building trails, good ones, with trailheads within a short warm up spin from town. There is even a plan to divert some water for a kayak run down through a city park. You get the picture. This is the start of a very advanced outdoor civilization.
Oh yeah - they do have golf courses there, and I am not dissing golfers on the whole. I know many golfers and, while they do like chasing around all over the countryside after a little white ball, they are perfectly decent folk, and even ride bikes on occasion (and some of them live in Wisconsin).
I got back from the ride and started cooking dinner (risotto). Then it started raining hard. It looked like the weather was going to be a factor again. I guess thats likely to be a theme for quite a while, especially given the proud Neocon approach to Kyoto and similar efforts to get this mess under control. Even if their faith based science (or whatever you want to call it) flipped around 180, the changes seem to be inevitable for a while, at least as long as I am likely to be rolling around on a bike. At least it wasnt going to be hot this time.
I rode again the next day. After a chat with a local fireman I got the inside track on where the course might get, errr, interesting after it rained. Apparently they had some rain last year and things got a bit sticky here and there. The trail he pointed me to was, in fact, sticky clay, and it was very tough to get through it. I could manage it, though the friend along for the ride with me couldnt. The not so subtle aspects of designing mud clearance into a full suspension frame showed up. Lots of clearance is far more critical to going fast (or going at all) in these conditions than the number of linkage elements you can dazzle people with.
We got back from the ride and I made a sprint for the local bike shop. There was one set of take-off tires left on the sale table and I wanted them. They would be better than the fat semi-slicks I had with me in these conditions. Of course, there are some skinny mud tires with my name on them that I would have preferred, but they were resting comfortably in my garage. I never dreamed that Id be racing in anything like this on this trip (refer to my incorrect image of AZ above).
There was a riders meeting the night before the event. (This is where it gets interesting by the way). Todd had to make a call. Racing on the course would have been hard, and fun, for mudders like me anyway. But it would have been risky. It would have trashed the trails and there would be some riders out there for a long time. Only a few finished the course last year apparently. He had no choice but to change things or cancel the event.
He and the folks in the area that know the trails had worked hard that afternoon and came up with a weather friendly route. The new race course was on fireroads though, and after the promise of all that singletrack that change was likely to be a tough sell (no one other than he and the local guides knew it at the time).
So he made the announcement at the riders meeting, easing into it with the skill of a top notch comedian. The fact that there was a fair amount of Red Hook being consumed there might have been in his favor, and might even have been in his plan. Dunno. To juice it up a little he added distance to the race and there was now a 105 mile option (and got a standing ovation for that), a 72 mile option and a 42 mile option. I figured wed (those who are friendly, or at least sympathetic) have to jump in and save him from a lynching by an angry mob - this was the wild west after all. But he had them (us) dancing in the aisles when he told them the news. It was a beautiful thing - certainly a top ten all time for a promoter in this spot.
I think this says a lot for everyone involved. He and the local guides worked their butts off to reroute the race in time. The racers wanted to race (dammit) and long race on a good fire road course in these mountains was going to be a lot better than driving home and watching football on TV. And Todd has always put on good events so he had their trust (and had them laughing hard enough at the key moment in the speech to pull it off). Cool.
The course was good, not very technical (but at speed on the rocky descents there were places where you had to pay attention), very fast, and good fun. I took the 72 mile option thinking that 105 miles the week before a big 24 hour race was probably more than I needed.
It started like a road race in a fairly tight group and stayed that way until the first tight turn into the wind. I had the misfortune of going to the front to chase the one guy that had gone off the front at the critical turn, not fully appreciating the wind conditions until I had turned it up and made it around the corner. At that point he was coming back towards me a bit so I put my head down and pushed hard. Not long after that I realized that the more organized chase group that was coming up behind me was, in fact, coming up pretty fast. Whoops. Off they went. But I got away with another guy only a little bit later, a few others followed to chase the 10 guys who were up the road at that point. But that lead group had broken apart quickly so we were all time trialing after that. I caught some of them, so I was feeling pretty good about that.
The race was the best of the year for me. My legs were good all day, things flowed, I stayed upright (OK - the change to the fire road course might have helped a bit there), and I never went deep until the last 3 miles or so. The course finished into a serious headwind, a perfect Belgian moment really, and I put it on the limit with images of Johan Museeuw streaming along with the best my MP3 player could manage. It doesnt get any better.
Well, actually it does get a little better. I saw some shaggy mane mushrooms along the course and went back after them. Thats a first for me, foraging-wise. They are fine as flavoring in a risotto. And I found an abandoned apple orchard, and cooked apple cakes in my dutch oven every night after that. Its amazing how much food gets wasted when it isnt polished and presented on a grocery store shelf.
Oh yeah, it gets even better. I won. I was in front in the Masters category by nearly a half hour, beating all the youngters at that distance too. It was the fastest average in a race I have ever done too - 72 miles in 4:38 = 15.5 mph. Yahoo.
(I hope you will pardon the exuberance, but after the string of heat induced nightmares Ive had this year my ego needed the exercise. I hope you understand).
The barbeque and party (including free Red Hook) after the race were excellent, but my recollection of them is slightly fragmented. Ill spare you. Rain or shine the event is on my list next year, though it is only going to be better with cooperative weather and rideable singletrack.
Read part two