Black Bear Rampage 2013 Weekend: Day 4 (race day!)
This is the fourth in a series of blogs in which I am documenting my 2013 Back Bear Rampage experience. Previous blogs in this series:
Please note that this week’s blogs and videos contain content and language that some may find objectionable and/or offensive.
Day 4: Sunday, September 8, 2013 (race day!).
I woke up early on Sunday morning, and the first thought that entered my head was, “Well how about that? It’s time for my first mountain bike race!”
Not only was this very my first mountain bike race, it was also my first time on the 40-mile Black Bear Rampage race course, and–apart from the previous couple of days of riding–my first time riding in the mountains. I’ve done rides as long as 100 miles here in Florida, but I’ve never climbed 4,000 feet in a single ride–especially over a distance of just 40 miles.
Before I get into the race itself, I need to provide some information to those who are not familiar with mountain bike racing…
There are quite a few different race categories, and–at this particular race–it’s up to each rider to pick the category that is most appropriate. The race categories are based on sex (Male, Female), age (34 & Under, 35-49, 50+) and experience (Pro, Expert, Sport and Beginner). There are additional categories based on rider weight (Clydesdale, Burly Bear) and bike gearing (single speed).
The classifications can be misleading to the uninitiated. For example, “Beginner” is a total misnomer, as no beginner mountain biker could even think about riding the mountainous 40-mile Rampage course. The categories are more indicative of a rider’s racing experience (which is an extremely important factor) than his or her riding experience.
When I registered for the race the only real choice I had to make was which experience level to choose. Because of all the reasons I just mentioned (first mountain bike race, first time on this course, first time climbing 4,000 feet in a single ride, first time riding in the mountains), the “Beginner” category seemed like the obvious and most logical choice. This notion was reenforced when I saw that Mike Simmons had registered as a “Beginner”, as Mike has many more years of riding experience than I do, has done this race before (as well as other races on these same trails) and has lots of experience riding in the mountains (he cut his MTB teeth on North Carolina mountains). Even Rob Ern, who is a fast and experienced racer, had originally registered as a “Beginner” (I got a chuckle out of that, and gave him a little hell on Facebook), but then Rob wound up switching to “Clydesdale” (these are 200+ pound riders, but they are not slow–these are big, FAST riders). Steve Truitt and Joe Moffitt, experienced riders with plenty of mountain riding under their belts, also registered as “Beginners”. J.C. Mazza registered as a “Burly Bear” (240+ pound riders).
Anyway, given all this information, there was no doubt in my mind that I was in the right category for my very first race.
A couple of my friends/riding buddies from Florida, Daniel Cleaver and Mark Huff, were not staying at the yurts with us, but were in town for the race. Daniel–who is a super fast rider and a very experienced racer–decided to race in the “Sport” category, while Mark raced “Silverback” (50+).
There were two course options: 20 mile and 40 mile. We all did the 40 mile course.
As I said in another blog when I first decided to do the Black Bear Rampage, I was there to have fun and ride hard, but safe. I was treating it as sort of a pre-ride for the 2014 race. I figured if I finished in the middle of the pack, that would be a solid showing for my first race.
The 40 mile race course has 4,000 feet of climbing and a total of six rated climbs (four Cat 4 climbs, and two Cat 3 climbs). There are also a number of non-rated, but very steep, “grunt” climbs. Here’s my GPS map of the race course along with the elevation profile (click any of the below images to enlarge):
For intra-race nutrition I decided that “real” foods would not be required. I took along 4 GU Gels, 1 package of GU Chomps, 4 additional SportLegs capsules and 6 Salt Stick capsules. I also carried a 25-ounce CamelBak Podium Big Chill bottle with Hammer HEED electrolytes in my bike’s water bottle cage.
I’d carefully packed my gear bag the night before the race, and I double-checked before I went to sleep to make sure I had not forgotten anything.
All set for the race, the six of us loaded up our two trucks and drove away from the yurts. Just as we got to the end of the long driveway before the main road, Joe yelled from his truck, “Hey, there’s still a CamelBak hanging from one of the hooks back at the yurts!”
It was mine. All that double checking my gear the night before and I’d overlooked one of the most critical things I’d need during the race: water.
It was Steve who’d spotted the CamelBak, and I owe him big time for speaking up about it. If Steve had not seen the CamelBak and said something, I would have had to do the race with just two water bottles–one of which I would have had to carry in a jersey pocket. While I certainly could have done the race that way, it would have required additional SAG stops to re-fill my bidons, and that would have slowed me down. THANK YOU, STEVE!
The race start was at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, which is where the 1996 Olympic games whitewater competition was held.
I’d planned to film the race with my GoPro, but I was unable to mount the GoPro after strapping my race number to my bike. I probably could have rigged something up, but my mind was on the race and I didn’t feel like dealing with it. The GoPro went back into the truck.
They started us in large waves spaced two minutes apart. I was in the third wave, with a start time of 9:04 AM. The scene before the start of the race was pretty spectacular: hundreds of riders gathered en masse, ready to rumble.
I thought I’d be nervous but, surprisingly, I wasn’t feeling any jitters at all. I was excited about the race, but no butterflies in my stomach or anything like that. I just wanted to ride!
When my wave rolled out at 9:04 AM, I quickly positioned myself on the outside of the pack and started passing people. The first ~2.5 miles of the race is actually on a paved highway, and it is a Cat 4 climb. I knew that my road riding and fitness would benefit me here, and I wanted to take advantage of that by improving my position as much as possible. This is where some experience would have benefited me a great deal: I had no idea how hard I could ride without burning myself out. Sure, I’ve done countless 40+ mile mountain bike rides, but never with the sort of climbing I’d be facing this day. So I rode by feel, fairly hard, but not hammering. I tried to keep my heart rate around 160 BPM.
I moved up the pack, improving my position. As I passed Rob Ern, who started ahead of me in the same wave, he said, “I knew you’d catch me on this climb.”
As we turned right onto the first section of singletrack, Brush Creek, I quickly caught some other riders. Our pack caught another pack, and the next thing I knew I was stuck in a train.
This section of trail is pretty tight, so passing is tough. Passing a guy or two? No problem. 20-30 people in front of you? Forget it.
So I settled in, a little bummed that the pace of the train was slower than I would have been going if I’d been on my own. A few people in the train, irritated by the pace, yelled out in frustration.
The pace was not as fast as I would have preferred, but it was also far from slow, and the trail was flowing beautifully. I knew there was a lot of racing ahead, and there would be plenty of places to make moves. I relaxed and enjoyed the trails, knowing there was nothing I could do for now.
After Brush Creek we hit the first super fast downhill: Boyd’s Gap. The train stretched out a bit as we flew down the mountain, and I was riding as fast as my abilities would allow. It felt great! My rear shock rebound was perfectly dialed in for Florida trails, but I quickly realized that it was not ideal for this particular trail: I came very close to being bucked off my bike a couple of times.
The most sobering and dramatic event of the race occurred midway through the Boyd’s Gap downhill section. As we were blistering along, suddenly someone came running up the trail yelling, “Rider down! Rider down! It’s bad, be ready to stop!”
Because we were on such a fast section of trail, this was a potentially dangerous situation. We all slowed down as much as possible, and yelled the information back to the riders behind us.
As we approached the scene of the accident we brought our bikes to a halt and dismounted. I could see a body lying in the middle of the trail ahead, just past two very steep drops. We slowly made our way past the poor guy on the ground. As I passed within inches of the victim, I looked down at him. He was unconscious, and his face was covered in blood. His nose looked broken.
A bit shaken, I made my way past the accident, got back on my bike and continued downhill. A short time later I heard a helicopter. I found out later that the rider was airlifted off the mountain and taken to the hospital.
Thankfully the rider is okay and, after a few days, was released from the hospital.
After Boyd’s gap we hit Old Copper Road, which winds along the Ocoee river. There are a lot of roots and rocks in this section, and it’s very scenic. Rob Ern caught and passed me in this section.
Not too long after Old Copper Road was the next climb, Bear Paw. Bear Paw was pretty tough, but there were much bigger, badder climbs ahead…
Next up after the Bear Paw climb was another big downhill: Thunder Rock Express! Man, this section of trail is super fast, and stupidly fun. I’d caught back up to Rob on Bear Paw, but lost him on TRE; I wouldn’t see him again until the end of the race.
I loved every second of TRE. Good thing, because the pain was about to get serious…
Immediately after TRE was the hardest sustained climb of the day: FR 45 followed immediately by Quartz Loop. This climb goes on for what feels like forever. It’s nearly 1,000 feet of almost non-stop climbing. Joe Moffitt and I were next to each other through much of the FR 45 section of climb, and it was very nice to have a wingman to distract me from the pain.
Right before the Quartz Loop is the second SAG stop, which I took advantage of (I’d bypassed the first SAG). I quickly stopped to fill my CamelBak and then took off again. It would be my only stop in the race. When I left Joe was still at the SAG stop stretching his muscles.
After the big FR 45 climb and Quartz Loop we were about 24 miles into the race. I was definitely hurting from the tough climbs, but I’m no stranger to pain while riding. Rule #5 was in full effect.
The next section was River View. At some point in this area Joe caught me again, and shouted some words of encouragement as he passed me.
Right after River View was the next rated climb (Cat 4), and I think I caught and passed Joe again on that climb. It’s funny how we yo-yo’d the entire race.
Next we rode back down Bear Paw, and that downhill was merciful. I commented after the race that I now know what feels better than sex: a downhill after a tough climb. No lie.
About 30 miles in was the third SAG stop at the Ocoee Whitewater Bridge. I had plenty of water, and with 3/4 of the race done I blazed past the SAG stop for the final 10 miles….
There was one more extremely tough section ahead. Remember that insanely fast downhill at the beginning of the race called “Boyd’s Gap”? Yeah, well now we had to climb it. On destroyed legs. It hurt. Bad.
After climbing out of Boyd’s Gap, there was only about 7 miles to the finish. Joe caught me again, and as he passed I remember thinking, “Wow, he looks a lot fresher than I feel. I guess he’s got me.”
Around this time my left triceps started cramping up pretty bad. The only way I was able to keep my triceps from fully locking up was to ride with my right hand on the bars while holding my left arm up and bent. I downed a Salt Stick capsule and–just like magic–5 minutes later the cramping was gone. I sure am glad I discovered the Salt Stick caps, they are amazing.
With the muscle cramping gone I felt reinvigorated! Knowing the end of the race was just a few miles away, I rode as hard as I could. With a short distance left to the finish I was surprised to see Joe just ahead of me again. I slowly began to reel Joe in and, after rounding a corner, I saw the finish line about a quarter of a mile ahead! The finish line was at the top of a climb, and there was a huge throng of spectators screaming and cheering. Feeding off the energy of the crowd, I flew up the hill with everything I had, passing Joe and one other rider just before we crossed the line.
When I saw the results I was surprised, and happy. I took 6th in my category (of 45 riders) with a time of 4:11:55. I was less than 4.5 minutes from a podium finish. Interestingly, if I’d been a little younger and racing in the 34 & Under group I would have been in 3rd, and just about a minute out of 2nd. Us old guys are tough.
Of course after the race I started thinking about the things that might have cost me a spot on the podium, including that train I was caught in early in the race, and the accident in front of me which cost me at least 5 minutes. This is where race experience helps. In retrospect I would have rode harder up the opening climb. Perhaps if I’d been in front of the accident I would have made the podium. Certainly if I’d not rode as much in the days leading up to the race my legs would have been fresher, but as I said to the guys after the race, I wouldn’t have traded those super fun rides for a 15 minute faster race time.
Joe finished just behind me in 7th with a time of 4:12:11. Steve Truitt and Mike Simmons finished right next to each other in 20th and 21st place, with times of 4:44:49 and 4:45:05, respectively. Mike took about 15 minutes off his time from last year. Great job, guys!
Unfortunately J.C. Mazza had a race-ending mechanical: his handlebars literally broke in half (picture below). This happened on the Boyd’s Gap downhill, and could have been a very serious accident. Thankfully J.C. can take a punch, and was just fine. As an aside, J.C. has one of the best attitudes I’ve seen when it comes to remaining undeterred. He had several mechanicals on this trip, but nothing got to him. He just dealt with the problem, and moved on.
Rob Ern grabbed a well-deserved spot on the podium with a third place finish and a time of 3:59:00! Rob was a little disappointed with his time, as it was about 15 minutes slower than his time last year, but he also dealt with a mechanical that cost him. Great job, Rob!
Daniel Cleaver absolutely destroyed it out there, and turned in a blistering time of 3:24:10. Daniel took first place in his category (Sport), but was automatically bumped up to “Expert” due to his time.
Mark Huff took 7th in his category with a time of 4:56:54. Unfortunately Mark also dealt with a mechanical issue during the race.
The race was exceptionally well run, and the course was fast, well-marked/staffed and well-groomed. Thanks to Scott’s Bikes for putting together such a fantastic event.
Immediately after the race I bought a pizza from one of the food trucks, and inhaled it while I watched the awards ceremony. It was delicious, but it barely made a dent in my appetite. After the awards we went back to the yurt and got cleaned up. We then hit the El Rio Mexican restaurant in Copperhill, Tennessee, where we consumed their Enchiladas Supreme (Rob Ern recommended this dish, and it was outstanding!) and Dos Equis beer. After that meal we went back to the yurts. Rob, J.C. Mike and I and hung out while consuming ridiculous amounts of beer until we could no longer keep our eyes open. Steve and Joe had to head back home to Alabama and, regrettably, were not able to join our post-race celebration.
What an incredible experience. I’ll never forget it.
Here are some pictures of my friends.