I haven't raced mountain bikes much lately. I do miss it sometimes, but I just don't have the competitive drive I once had. When I heard about the Cedar City Fire Road 100 km race coming to town, I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to race in my own backyard.
I love long and steep climbs and this course didn't shy away from climbing at all. In fact the course kicks off with the grueling 3200-vertical-feet in 7 miles Kanarra Mountain Road climb. There would be over 15,000 feet of total elevation change over the 60-mile course.
As the race's name implies, what sets this race apart from many other long distance mountain bike races is that the course is nearly all non-technical fire roads (relatively smooth, graded dirt roads). I never thought I'd see the day when a race promoter would tout a race course with absolutely NO singletrack and minimal technical challenges. But, judging from the turn out, this type of course is appealing to many that have the fitness but not a lot of technical skill (I suspect many participants were triathletes or roadies).
I didn't do any kind of specific training to prepare for the race. I tried to ramp my miles up by bike-commuting to work and I practiced the Kanarra climb a couple of times. I had to take a week off from riding for a backpack trip through Death Hollow.
I learned a couple of key things during my training runs. First, I knew I could power up the big climb just fine with my 1x5 drive train (with a 32t x 32t being my lowest gear), but if I were to enjoy the remaining 35 miles of the race (including a second shorter, but steeper climb), I'd need to swap out my 32-tooth rear cog with a super-low 38-tooth cog that I've had laying around for awhile. With the lower gear I'd have a better chance of having enough spring in my legs to finish the race.
Second, I noticed I pretty much had my rear suspension locked out all the time while riding the relatively smooth course. One week before the race, I asked myself, 'Why not just use my lighter and more efficient hard-tail bike?'
There were a couple of good reasons why I should have just stuck to my normal full-suspension bike. First, I don't really have a hard-tail bike, I have a hard-tail frame, meaning I'd have to switch all my parts from one frame to the other. Not that big of deal, but as every seasoned racer knows, making major changes to your bike just one week before a big event is almost always a big mistake--let alone switching over nearly every single part.
I knew it was a bad idea, but I did it anyway. It took less than 2 hours, and once I got the shifting dialed in, I felt pretty good about my decision. After a short ride, I noticed the seat post had slipped down a bit. I replaced the tiny super-light seat-post collar with a large not-so-light hunk of metal and clamped it as hard as I could. After another practice ride, it appeared the seat post would hold.
Since I was already taking a huge risk, I figured, why stop there. I replaced my usual dependable rear tire with an 8-year-old Kenda Klimax. These are some of the lightest and fastest tires on the market due to their dainty build, but you need to run nearly 60 psi to avoid pinch flats. As I cranked up the air pressure, I could see the old, dried-out rubber starting to crack. A couple of the side knobs looked as if they were on the verge of popping off. I placed my bike on the scale. 19.9 pounds. Under 20 pounds! I wasn't going to change a thing.
I was surprised at the variety of bikes I saw at the starting line. Mine certainly wasn't the weirdest. Yes, my cheapo $99 no-name frame paired with a bright orange circa 2000 Manitou fork looked a little out of place compared to the most popular bike at the starting line: a tall and sleek carbon fiber 29er mated with the latest and greatest fork, that alone, is worth more than my entire rig. But I also saw a couple of older-model cross bikes, a few single speeds (ouch) and even a husband/wife duo on a tandem.
It was a fun group and everyone was very relaxed as we waited to start.
Above: Mr. Antisocial. This is what turned up in the local paper. That's me, front and center, in the green jersey waiting for things to kick off.
I wish all races could start like this. We coasted right down Main Street at an easy pace following behind a police motorcade. We were instructed not to begin "racing" until after we turned off Main and the police pealed off. This was a great warm-up.
The first several miles of the course are paved and downhill. Not having a tall gear (my tallest being 32x12), I expected to get dropped and fall behind with the single-speeders. To my surprise, no one was pushing too hard and I was able to tuck into the pack' s slipstream and keep up by simply coasting.
The course soon turned onto a dirt road at Shurtz Creek and started to climb very gently. This is the terrain my bike was best suited for and I immediately began picking people off with fatter bikes and fatter tires. By the time we topped the first mellow climb, the lead pack was about 45 seconds ahead of me. We descended a sweeping off-camber turn which I had to brake quite a bit on due to my skinny grip-less tires. I was in pretty good position, perhaps 7 or 8 back from the lead and I was ready to take on the Kanarra climb just around the corner.
Above: racers make their way up the Kanarra Mountain Road. Photo: Danny Stewart, Cedar City Events.
About a week before the race, the promoters announced there would be a King/Queen of the Mountain competition on the 7-mile climb. Timing mats were placed at the bottom and top to automatically register everyone's time. Very cool idea--sort of a race within a race.
I made sure to steer squarely over the timing mat at the start of the climb. After hearing a short beep confirming the mat had recognized my timing chip and thus starting my KOM time, I pushed hard on the pedals to try and carry some momentum up the first part of the hill. Well, that was the plan anyway.
As soon as I applied hard pressure to the pedals, a horrendous noise screeched from my bottom bracket. I instantly knew I had a big problem and hopped off my bike to take a look.
It was my MRP chain guide. This particular type of chain guide is designed for cross-country racers that want to ditch their front derailleur and still have some assurance that the chain will stay on the chainring. The type I have is held into place by the outer bottom bracket cup. Obviously, I had not tightened by bottom bracket enough, and somehow my chain had jammed and rotated the entire guide forward.
It looked ugly, and I thought I was completely screwed. Nobody carries around a bottom bracket tool with them. A string of several riders began passing. About every other rider would ask me if I was OK. I pulled my bike off to the side of the road and just stared at the problem. Every stinking beep I heard from the timing mat (that was only 10 feet away) meant another racer was getting ahead.
This was a classic example of why you don't make major changes to your bike days before a race.
With nothing to lose, I grabbed the chain guide and forcefully rotated it back to approximately where it was supposed to be. Nothing fell apart and the chain clearance looked good. The only question now was if the guide would now stay in place.
As I hopped back on my bike, I briefly entertained the idea of passing back over the timing mat in hopes of re-starting my KOM time. Ahhh, that would never work. I had wasted 5 minutes or so and there was nothing I could do. On the bright side, my legs felt fresh and I started picking off many of the riders that had passed me.
Above: remains of a historical tram that once brought coal off of Kanarra Mountain can be seen on top of the red sandstone bluffs 2 miles into the climb.
The first 2 miles of the Kanarra climb are by far the steepest. When you reach red outcrops of Navajo Sandstone, you know easier grades are just ahead. After a creek crossing at the head of a waterfall, there is a short breather before the climbing resumes.
Above: I've just finished the steepest 2 miles and crossed a little creek that signals more moderate slopes. Photo by Fire Road Cycling.
The remainder of the big climb is relatively fast (as far as climbs go anyway) with just a few shortish steep pitches. I passed a couple more riders as the climb progressed. I was really impressed with the couple on the tandem. I was certain I had dropped them a couple of times only to have them sneak up on me again on the flatter sections.
Near the top, I switched back and forth with a couple of really fast women, one of which I'm fairly certain was triathlete legend Paula Newby-Fraser.
Above: Here's the upper part of the climb less than 1 month (6/12) before the race. Luckily, the latter half of June was extra warm and everything melted out with time to spare.
After passing over the upper timing mat at the climb's conclusion, a fast straight-a-way section brought us to the first fully-stocked aid station. My plan was to stop and take my time at two aid stations (there were 5 or 6 in total). I hoped the breaks would divert some blood from my working muscles to my stomach to avoid any major gastro-intestinal issues, which have plagued me in the past. As soon as I rolled in, volunteers flurried about offering to hold up my bike, food, and to refill my Camelbak. I chugged down an iced water bottle and crammed down as many potato chips as I could. I tried to relax a bit as I watched a handful of riders pass.
On course again, I couldn't believe the wild flowers stretching across the Markagunt's open meadows. I'd never seen so many this early in the summer.
Photo: Danny Stewart, Cedar City Events.
Photo by Fire Road Cycling.
After a few miles of rolling terrain, a long downhill led to Kolob Reservoir. Again, lacking any tall gearing, I was certain racers would start blowing by me on the descent. Instead, that downhill started a stretch in which I didn't see another rider for close to an hour. This made me a tad nervous since part of this lonely stretch included Oak Valley which was unknown territory for me. But just as I'd worry that perhaps I'd gotten off-course, a marker would appear to ease my anxiety.
I definitely knew I was on the right track when I rounded a corner that transitioned into the second major climb. I could see several riders strung out over the long climb ahead. This was going to hurt.
The climb up and around Thorley Point is steady with a couple of extremely steep pitches. Once I got into a good rhythm though, the climb actually seemed to pass fairly quickly. Volunteers at a fluid-only station cheered me on. I passed one guy near the top struggling with leg cramps.
A couple of false summits were demoralizing, but once I could see I had reached the true summit, I knew I'd easily finish the race. There was still another 20 miles to go, but all the big climbs were behind me--just a couple of minor hills, some flattish sections, and then another long and fast downhill to the finish at Cedar City. Luckily, my chianguide was staying put, and my tires still had air.
Above: The second "big climb" of the day near Thorley Point had nice views toward Zion National Parks' trademark sandstone towers. Photo: Danny Stewart, Cedar City Events.
Above: Taking my time at the second fully-stocked aid station. The p.b. & j. sandwiches hit the spot. Photo by Fire Road Cycling.
After re-fueling and resting for several minutes at the final aid station, I set out again. I passed a couple of 60k stragglers that had barely made it up the Kanarra climb. I was feeling great and having a lot of fun. I charged out of the saddle up the remaining rollers.
Above: 45 miles in and still smiling. It was practically all downhill from here. Hmmm, my leg extension doesn't look so great here. Yeah, unbeknown to me, my seat post was a slippin'. Photo by Fire Road Cycling.
The course passed a row of private cabins. Several families out on lawn chairs cheered riders on. I zipped past the final fluid-only aid station where dirt turns to pavement. This is where the long decent began. I got into my best aero position and simply let gravity do its job.
I assumed the race course was going to just follow the graded Cedar Highlands road down to town. I was a bit surprised when trail markers diverted me onto a steep and loose ATV trail that led down to Green's Lake. From here, the course curved around the southwestern edge of the Cedar Highlands subdivision, at times using faint and washed out tracks that were a bit sketchy. Thankfully, there were more tech sections in there than I was anticipating.
A hard right at the bottom of the hill delivered us onto a series of dirt tracks that cross several flood control dikes. I was soon back on pavement and the course ended up passing within 100 yards of my house before we were dumped onto a paved path.
The paved trail soon led to the finish line at Main Street Park.
I was happy to finish since I've had stomach issues on long, high-intensity events in the past. Although I couldn't help but think that perhaps I'd taken it a little too easy. Did I waste too much time at the aid stations? Could I have pushed a little harder on the climbs? Certainly, I could have prepped my bike better.
I'm already thinking ahead to next year. My goal? To lay it all out. I want to limp over the finish line after having given it my all.
Above: Crossing the finish line with plenty of energy. Not good.
Post-race note: 3 days after the race, I rode my bike to work. I could hardly ride. I wasn't sore. My stinking seat post had slipped down during the race a good 3 inches!!! It happened so gradually throughout the race that I never noticed. That certainly sucked some power.
King of the Mountain: 15th out 74
100k Men Overall: 16th out of 34
Time to complete 100k: 5 hours 17 minutes
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