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Barbarella: The Barbara Howe diary

Just as Barbarella bumps through the universe, comically oblivious to the dangers and threats being thrust at her, Barbara Howe has had a few misadventures of her own. After an illness-filled season in 2006, the 31 year-old Velo Bella rider is working to get her fitness back in 2007. Although 'cross is still the favorite discipline of the Marin County, California resident, Howe is returning to action by racing her mountain bike. When not training on and around Mt Tamalpais, she keeps busy cooking and sewing.

Follow the fortunes of this free-spirited individual here on Cyclingnews.

May 11, 2007

Napa Valley Dirt classic

This past weekend I had the honour of racing at the Napa Valley Dirt classic. All the locals that I talk to have raced there at some time in the past so it seemed time that I checked it out. The race is held on the grounds of Pacific Union College, a Seventh Day Adventist college and is is on a Sunday which means no pre-riding on Saturday which in this case was very timely.

Saturday poured rain all day, not on the scale of Sea Otter but a long steady rain. The weather forecast all week called for rain on Sunday as well. In preparation I set up some wheels with the Schwable Black shark Mud tire on the rear in a 1.5 (I've seen 'cross tires wider than this) and a 1.8 Nobby Nick on the front. It's a mud fest set of wheels with normal width and tread tires on another set of wheels.

After a brief but nerve wracking bit of misdirection I found myself at registration with plenty of time to spare. Everything was wet and chilly even though the sun was unobstructed in the sky. Having never raced here I had no idea if the soil was the draining type or the peanut butter mud type. Some friendly East Bay racers suggested using the wider tires as some of the rocky sections could be unpleasant with the super narrow mud tires. I went with the suggestion and was glad for it. For a warm up I checked out the start and finish of the course which had lots of sticky clay based mud and a steep run up/descent. I had a great crash on the steep little descent while warming up and got mud all over myself, so much for looking pro and starting the race nice and clean.

I had forgotten how laid back and fun local mountain bike races are. The pro, expert and masters women all staged together and there was no pushing, shoving, umbrellas, call ups or excessive nervous tension like at the big races. In fact everyone was relaxed and rather chatty at the start.

The start was a bit slower and more manageable than I've experienced this year; I even managed the hole shot! After a brief gravel path we hit the muddy road and I felt as if the race were in slow motion. There were watts being put out but I didn't seem to be moving too fast. This phenomenon was not confined just to me; Emily Van Meter of Bear Naked/Cannondale also noticed the excessive slowness of the dirt road. At the run up I trotted up an unused line that I had scoped while pre-riding, Emily had a tougher time of the run up having forgotten to install her toe spikes.

We picked up speed on the dirt roads and coasted down some steep descents. It was on the tight rolling single track that some of the single speed guys began to catch up and pass. A few men got in between the two of us and it got harder and harder to stay with her. On one particularly winding section Emily disappeared from view not to reappear until after I was finished with the race. At this point it was just a matter of staying ahead of everyone else and not letting my back seize up.

I had heard from many racers that the climb out of the valley was something of a butt kicker, this was putting it lightly. The climb starts after a deeply rutted fire road descent and doesn't let up for nearly an aeon. I'll preface the climb by saying that my favourite local single track is all rideable in the middle ring. In fact I generally use only about three gears for the whole ride. The Napa Valley Dirt Classic climb is several miles of granny gear climbing interspersed with limited areas of lesser gradient.

A lot of suffering is to be had on this climb as evidenced by the amount of people pushing their steeds along. Aside from a short slippery section at the bottom, I am proud to say that I rode the rest of the climb. Many, many time I wanted to get off and walk as it seemed like less suffering. Sweat flowed down into my eyes stinging them into tears and my legs screamed at the punishment. But I was passing dudes and my ego transcended all suffering, all pain, and all agony and made me stay on the bike and keep pedalling.

It was kind of weird though, on the steep sections I felt as if I was going along alright and when the trail levelled out it was as if all speed and power was stripped from my legs. I approached the run up/drop off with trepidation after crashing in warm up to find it much improved and drier than earlier. Clearing that left only a little tiny bit of race to finish including an ice bath in a muddy puddle and a lap on the track.

After some of the other ladies rolled in it was time to Tecnu and shower. For those that don't know, Tecnu is a truly amazing unguent that washes away the evil oils of poison oak. I've never seen so much poison oak on a ride as today. It covered the forest floors in a lush shiny green carpet awaiting the bare arms and legs of cyclists, ready to cause severe itching blisters and maybe even scars.

Poison oak is the larger meaner more potent cousin of poison ivy, know it and fear it. Many a rider was seen heading towards the showers with a large bottle of Tecnu tucked under their arm. As I faithfully rubbed the Tecnu onto all exposed areas a cool breeze flowing through the shower room began to lower my core temperature. A lukewarm shower didn't help matters much and although I ended up clean and oak free I was very, very cold.

I shivered my way through the raffle and it was only during awards when the rain started that I felt warm again. After a large bean burrito with my new found East Bay friends I was more than happy to head home and clean my bike several times to remove the tenacious clay.

Next week it's back to the big time, see you then!!!