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Test to destruction: The Keith Bontrager diary 2007
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.
August 20, 2007
Bontrager (the company) has sponsored a 24 hour race in England for the last two years. Bontrager (me) helps out with it. I've done 60 of these things now so I have a decent feel for what a good race is like. We've worked hard and done our best to get it right and it has worked out in most ways. The rest has been good instruction. Some of what goes into a good event is out of our hands, though.
English weather has a bad reputation, though it was never clear to me that it was deserved, based on my experiences there. I've raced quite a few times in the UK over the last 12 years and have only been really muddy a few times. The UK weather extremes I'd faced were typically somewhere in between warm and pleasant to clear and crisp. I know, that sounds wrong, impossible really, but it's true. After the last two years I'll admit that my run of luck, if that's what it is, seems to have come to an end.
We had a good course for the inaugural Twentyfour12 event, but English weather intervened and it all went wrong when it was wet. We had no idea what it would be like when it rained because we didn't test it when it was wet. There wasn't that much rain on race day overall, but it dumped down pretty hard for a half hour or so at one point. That combined with some clay soil on the first part of the course and the resulting grease effectively stopped the race for a few hours. The clay became too slippery to ride and some of the short climbs were too slick to even hike. My friend Julie called the worst of it "Bambi-ing". You run out of traction and have to stop, so you get off your bike. Then you are barely able to stand because it is so slick. Your feet slip out from under you when you try to take a step and you crumple to the ground helplessly, just like Bambi when she was learning to walk. Then it happens again. There was no way around it - you couldn't make any progress on that part of the course without crawling. It's not bike racing, and it sucked.
It isn't the first time I have seen races affected severely by weather. I still have clear recollections of a rider actually crying along the side of a course in West Virginia during a particularly muddy 24 hour session there.
Luckily, the weather turned better that afternoon and the clay dried up enough to be race worthy soon after that. Equally luckily was the fact that English racers end up with a fairly good sense of humor about the weather, so the race went on and ended on a positive note. I don't recall any reports of tears, either. Hardy Brits… It was a valuable lesson though, and came as close to a disaster as I'd ever want to be again. The mistakes we made the first year were honest ones, though possibly naïve. But no shortcuts were taken. We were using the venue for the first time, and we didn't get to ride it in the rain beforehand.
Weather related debacles have been a trend in 24 hour racing. I raced in two events in the States last year that were "suspended" for long periods or stopped mid way through due to threats of weather. They both ended up as nightmares, but not because of the weather. In fact the bad weather often let up just as the race was stopped. In the end racers came away feeling short changed because the race was stopped. Off road races should be "rain or shine" and weather should be part of the challenge. If the weather turns grim the participants can decide whether they want to continue or not. This is mountain bike racing, as I understand it. Stopping a race would not be part of my plan unless things were very dire.
This year we were at a new venue, a farm in an area just northwest of Oxford called Cotswalds Farm Park. It's an interesting spot, devoted to preserving old breeds of livestock, animals that were endangered because they were no longer considered as productive as modern breeds, but were historically significant in the UK (and still are, given the risks of relying on a monoculture in agriculture). The farm is open to the public and popular, especially with kids who get to see the livestock up close. It was popular with me, too. There is a huge, ginger haired pig that lives there. He and his favorite sow (who happened to be of a wild lineage) produced some equally attractive, striped red piglets. Cool stuff.
The area seemed promising, but it was still in England so I was told that weather could still be an issue. There had never been a bike race there before, though. It seemed unlikely that we'd have a lot of rain with a race date in mid-July, but I wanted to play it safe so I started asking questions in January. Duncan (the farm property manager) and Rob Lee (endurance racing specialist and the course designer for the event) had to field all sorts of weird, vague, and slightly paranoid questions about the soil composition, drainage, the weather we were likely to encounter, what the route options might be like etc from a weather novice from California. Luckily they had the patience for it and the right answers to most of them, so it seemed hopeful. They also said (also very accurately as it turned out) that no one could say what the weather might be. We had to make a decision so we did, and we had a race to run.
The weather cooperated over the next 6 months, though it did that in a backhanded way. I flew to the UK 3 times over a period of 5 months prior to the event, to ride the course Rob was laying out, check it out for its technical content, flow, and what it might be like in weather. I also wanted to do some promotion with magazines to announce the event and give them a taste of what we were cooking up. Rob had the course design under control, and he was making steady progress. But on every occasion I was over it rained hard, or snowed. The deeper meaning of that wasn't apparent initially.
As you can imagine, the weather problems set the promotional effort back, but they weren't without value. The wet conditions gave us all a good chance to see what the course would be like in case of precipitation, anything up to a typhoon or blizzard in fact. In the end I thought it was a tough route when it was muddy. But races ARE always harder when the course is muddy, so that was fine in that sense. Wet or dry, the course looked like it would be a good spot for a bike race.
The promotion never really happened the way it should have. We managed to get in some riding and photos with Russell Burton from MBUK at the last minute, but it was probably a bit too late to attract many riders. We had to rely on a few ads and our reputation for having technical courses, to fill the race.
I decided that we should do a simple evaluation on the site at the last minute (more paranoia), so we invited 25 riders to pre-ride the race course and give us some feedback a few weeks before the race. It was pissing rain that day but 22 brave souls showed up for a lap, followed by some tea and cakes and a debriefing.. err… chat. We got a lot of good information and feedback from the people who rode with us that day, and I think we gave them back a little in the way of tips on lines, etc. The course was muddy, a bit slippery here and there, but it held up fairly well after all the wheels were done with it. It seemed like it would get better when (if?) the rain stopped, too.
After the test ride I put up a post on the TwentyFour12 website advising everyone about the conditions and giving them some advanced warning about tire selection if it was wet on race day. This was a place where small mud tires ridden at low pressure were a definite advantage. The small casing allowed a little more clearance with the frame so they collected less. And at low inflation pressure they hooked up well in places where other tires were slipping, like the rooty off camber sections in the woods. There weren't enough hard packed fast sections for the bumpy tires to cost you much time, either. That was all I could do at that point. The rest depended on the weather.
There were things to do for the events coming up in London on the following weekend. The Tour de France was coming.
I scurried back to Brixton to arrange a picnic in Hyde Park with friends from Brixton Cycles and their families. My daughters Megan (18) and Anna (14) were coming over to help at the 24 hour race and were going to do a little sightseeing in London before and after the 24 hour race. They have extensive experience in these events from the States so I hoped they would be useful. They arrived just in time for the prologue and picnic as well. Nice timing.
I have seen the Tour de France a few times over the years. I can pull strings and end up sipping champagne in the VIP area occasionally, too. But the best way to see this race is with the typical French approach - have a picnic along the side of the route somewhere with friends, eat (and drink) well, enjoy the day, and applaud the riders when they flash by. We decided to have the French style picnic in London using locally sourced ingredients (a modest challenge for a tourist) so I spent the rest of the week gathering ingredients and preparing food (yeah, yeah – I did some REAL work, too – editing technical sections of marketing copy for new catalogs and contributing to some engineering projects).
A stop at a winery after nice mellow ride in Dorking with friends Ray and Julie netted 6 bottles of award winning (in France!) sparkling wine made from UK grapes. It's true - English wine is coming along. Then, on a quick foray into Borough Market, I scored some nice country ham at the Ginger Pig. Neil's Yard provided (after some generous compensation) four excellent examples of hand crafted English cheese. I steered away from the Stinking Bishop, though. Add some hot English mustard, pickled onions and some very nice apple and rhubarb chutney for some contrast. Four loaves of crusty soda bread would be baked in Brixton the day before the event. The baskets would be full!
Friday evening we were off on a short, sedate and only slightly dangerous townie ride to the team presentation at Trafalgar Square, courteously guided by the lads from Brixton Cycles. That was followed by a fairly tame stop at a packed pub in Soho for a pint. Then we were off to a tapas restaurant for an early dinner. It had to be an easy night out because it was going to be a hectic day tomorrow, and there were still many loaves of bread to bake.
The daughters arrived early the following day and I found them in fairly good shape at Heathrow. We hit the road (err… tube) and rumbled directly back to Brixton. They took a short nap (KB: "Sleep on the plane. Don't watch the movies!" BGurlz: "Right…") and we were off to the races. After a tube ride and some careful coordination with mobile phones (how did the world work before mobile phones?) we found ourselves more or less together in the middle of a zillion fans in Hyde park, enjoying the sun and watching some very fast racers begin 3 weeks of serious suffering. After all that work and not enough sleep (and a bit of the wine) I was suffering so I had a nap on the grass. T'was a wonderful day out.
The next few days were devoted to preparing the girls for their wandering around in London safely. I showed them how to ride the tube, where to go to find interesting galleries, how to avoid the cute boys, etc. Then they went sight seeing and shopping (mostly the latter I think, though there were probably some cute boys in the mix). I went back to the Cotswalds to work on the race course.
A good 24 hour race has a lot of things that go into it, and the quality of the race course is tops in my book. My spin on this is that the race course has to be technically challenging; not deadly, but not easy. Novices might be off their bikes a bit, and experts will at least have to pay attention. It's a mountain bike race after all. Experienced riders will get bored quickly if it's too easy. Less experienced riders will be put off if they are walking too much or feel like there are too many risks involved. It's a tricky one.
It's always easy to grumble about a course, though I never get too whiney. Now that I am part of the crew that is responsible for putting on a race I get to see it from the other side. This year I actually laid out part of the course too. There was an odd field at the farm called the "Humpy Bumps". It was a few grassy acres of field that was, errr, humpy and bumpy. It was an ancient stone mine, dug up at a time when mining stone meant digging biggish holes and yanking the stones out. Those holes eroded over the centuries and smoothed out, so now they look like oversized, grassy moguls. I was "assigned" the task of designing a route through the Humpy Bumps at the last minute. The original plan to have Clive the pro downhiller do it went wrong somehow and Rob was racing solo on the weekend so he couldn't do it, so it ended up as my job. I've never actually designed one before. In fact I was always fascinated by the process. I guess there is a first time for everything. I'd been hyping the "special finishing section" in my posts on the Twentyfour12 website before the race (based on Clive doing up something good) so I had something on the line personally.
There was nothing to do but dive in. I did my best to find good curvy lines through the field, using occasional short climbs up a bump to let you gain some speed when you came back down. The lines coming down almost always went into a berm, a small jump or some other potentially entertaining feature. The second half of the route split into multiple lines that were more or less equal so you could try a new line when you were bored with the last one or veer off on a different route to race with someone you'd been following. There was even a line into a tricky natural half pipe. The last feature you would encounter was a large log. You would have to dismount (aka cyclocross) to get over it quickly. I'd never seen one on a 24 hour course before, and it was my call to make, so I had to do it.
The main thing I was worried about with the section was that the surface was grass. Turf is slow, like sand in some ways, and that made you have to work a little to go fast enough to make the bumpy bits fun. I went after it with a lawnmower and scalped the grass down as close as possible. Then I rode it over and over on a 250 Honda to track it in. (Honest, I wasn't having any fun at all on that moto Adrian!) Both helped. I even requested a propane torch and backpack full of gas, the sort I'd seen landscapers use to burn weeds. That'd be the best way to get down to the dirt. But there were raised eyebrows and a definite no to that. OK. I tried…
I didn't consider it beforehand but, after laying out the basic lines, I realized that marking them effectively was going to be complicated. I was making this up as I went along so I really had no idea how to do it. Normally, trails in the woods have natural features that guide the racers, like rocks and trees. You need some tape and arrows here and there, but that's it. Grassy fields don't have any natural boundaries though, so I needed a pile of stuff to guide people through the maze I'd laid out. You know how racers are, always straightening things out, looking for the fast lines. There'd be none of that… That became my project for the next two days.
Luckily Megan and Anna were able to take a break from rider registration and they helped. They are smart and got the hang of it right away (in spite of my muddled instructions) so we were working through it fairly quickly. The piglets were racing around in the pasture next to the Humpy Bumps so that might have helped them with their decision to come over, too. The smaller piglets were misbehaving as well. They were tiny enough to squeeze through the openings in the fence wire and we'd have to chase them back to mama pig occasionally. I suspect that she was happy to have a break, but always seemed to welcome them back.
Marking the course took a lot of stakes and some hand made ribbon/nail markers. Martyn (the organizer) had someone going off to a local building materials shop for a few hundred more stakes and nails several times (that might have cut into his profits a little – sorry Martyn). In the end the lines were fairly easy to follow, or seemed to be anyway. We'd find out tomorrow.
Of course, it rained that night. Not too hard and not too long, but hard enough and long enough to soak the place down well.
Saturday morning I finished taping off the course and helped out at the racer's meeting; speaking in public is not something I do well but I managed to get through it without flipping out. The race started without a problem and the first Torqbar pro came around in 37 minutes and change. That was just about right. The course was not riding that slowly.
I was racing on a large team in the Just for Fun category, something I have only done a few times before. The large team meant long breaks and lots of time to recover, so there wasn't any real pressure on me in that regard. Adam Henson, one of the land owners who is a presenter on a BBC show called CountryFile, was racing on the team with me so there was a film crew around all weekend to document it. It was very cool to be around the pro TV folks – they are very good at what they do.
I didn't ride the first lap of the race because I wanted to be around the first time riders came through the Humpy Bumps in order to make sure things were working OK there. But I ended up riding the second lap which defeated that intention. My lap was going fine until I managed to suck a branch into the rear derailleur and it sheared off completely about 2/3 of the way around. Oh well. At least we weren't racing for keeps.
As soon as I got back I went out to see what was happening with the Humpy Bumps. Most of it was working as intended, but there were some problems I hadn't anticipated here and there. Riders with bewildered looks on their faces were crossing over the colorful plastic tape I'd nailed down along the edge of the course and were going backwards up the next section! There are obviously some things I have to learn about the interaction of a rider's psychology under stress and the details of race course design. I had some repairing and modifications to make ASAP. The "science" of product development involves, among other things, anticipating all of the weird ways the thing you are developing might be (mis)used when the public gets its hands on it. The analogies were not lost on me.
Some additional markers on the corners that were fooling riders sorted some trouble out. I ended up marshalling around the spots where the course split into multiple lines for a while too. I was encouraging riders to try the line that was not being ridden as often, until the lines were worn in well enough that they were very obvious (as in "just follow the muddy brown line"). Anna and a friend who was between laps, Bill Miller from Trek USA, helped a bit too.
The reviews of the Humpy Bumps were mixed (as I expected them to be) but mostly positive. Fit riders and those with some BMX experience got it. They were stoked to be doing something different and were smiling the whole time. Those riders who were struggling physically by the end of the lap and those who hadn't done much riding that required serious cornering were not as stoked. Some of these folks didn't like the idea of working that hard on a twisty trail with the finish line in sight (the Bumps were at the end of the course). Fair enough.
I am happy to report that the riders that listened to me in the rider's meeting and dismounted, ran over the log, and hopped back on without losing a step gained a little time on the others who rode around it. They got major style points from me. The cyclocross line was the best line (at least until the old guy rode through the alternate I made and kicked the critical barrier out as he went by to soften up the tight turn. Yeah, I saw you. Karma will deal with you, severely).
The most serious criticism I got was "Were you responsible for the Humpy Bumps?" (KB - err.. yeah). "I'd like to throttle you". That's not as bad as it sounds. She was climbing onto the podium as she said it… I might dabble a bit more on race course design someday, but I am not going to quit my day job.
After boring you for so long about the one kilometre of course I worked on (out of the 14-kilometre long course) I need to set things straight. Rob Lee did a fantastic job on the rest of the Cotswalds race course. The loop he created was completely new so it was not easy. He started with raw, untracked woods. In the end he came up with a course that had a lot of tight, twisty singletrack in the trees and quite a bit of climbing, much more than you would expect to find in that area. The course was technical in some spots (the drop in to the first bomb hole in particular) but not over the top. There were plenty of slippery roots to keep track of, too. The climbs and the occasional wide spots in the singletrack let traffic get sorted out so, other than the first lap, the bottlenecks were minimal and things flowed pretty well for everyone. You had to do more than pedal your bike to get around quickly, and that is just what we were looking for.
Had the course been dry it would have been a blast. Things started off wet but dried out continuously until about 2 AM, so the 12 hour riders had the best of it. Around 2 AM it started to rain, and that continued off and on until the next morning. The course was tougher in the rain, but not that bad. There were sections that were unrideable, but they were short enough to run. Experienced mudders were having their fun, and the others were gaining experience (how's that for a positive spin… maybe I've been writing too much marketing copy).
Rob and Sally (his wife) each won their solo categories. That is unique in my experience. I am not aware of a couple that can each win 24 hour solo races anywhere else I have been racing in the world. I watched them both on the course during the event and they were amazing, riding quick laps with steady splits, staying within themselves, executing the plan. Congrats to them both.
Other friends did well, too. Matt Carr rode his new 69er (69er = New Trek singlespeed w/ a 29inch front wheel and 26 inch rear wheel) to third in the 24 solo category, and never stopped cracking jokes or heckling people the entire time. Julie came in second in the women's 12 hour solo category, another podium for her. Garreth (I met him at La Ruta in Costa Rica a few years ago) rode to a steady 13th in the men's 12 hour solo category too.
Even though the course was sloppy at times I had a very good time on my night laps following my own advice (ahem). I managed to avoid the branches so they went better mechanically too and I didn't have to run much. There is something a bit too decadent about seven hours of sleep between laps in a 24 hour race, but given my other responsibilities it worked out fine.
Megan and Anna came away from the event with muddy shoes and generous paychecks for their efforts. Those extra pounds came in handy during the ensuing shopping spree in London, too.