(all photos stolen from Whiteface Lake Placid Facebook)
So far this season has been going pretty much like any other mountain bike season: three Ontario Cups, two Canada Cups and a couple of early season "road" races. Two third place finishes, two fourths and a second. Same old races with the same old results. Tremblant and Hardwood Hills stand out for their excellent courses and the others... well... all I can really remember is the usual beating from Jon Barnes. And then last weekend happened. Dave and I (along with Cyclery Vince and his wingman Swat Team Sean) travelled to Lake Placid for The Race of the Year So Far. The event was billed as an official Leadville 100 qualifier starting and finishing at Whiteface Mountain with 100km of racing in between.
I will admit that I was a little put off by the Leadville association. I'm getting a little tired of Leadville being referred to as "the World Series of mountain biking." I guess that makes former winners Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer the Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire of mountain biking? Maybe the analogy's not too far off. Anybody who follows XC racing at all knows that Leadville is hardly representative of the sport's top tier. Plus I'm a grump. Like the punker kid in high school who hated when his favourite band got popular. Why, they started showing up on TV! And playing his town! The horror! It's irrational, I know, but Leadville-mania rubs me the wrong way. Gravel road race on a mountain bike? Whatever! And now this qualifying series. I can just see the Leadville marketing people sitting around a board room table saying, "Look there's this Hawaiian Ironman... it's like heaven for triathletes. They're dying to get in and will pay any price. We could TOTALLY do that with Leadville!" High fives all around.
Those early misgivings went out the window when we arrived in Lake Placid and I found myself thinking, "no matter how this race actually turns out, 100km on a mountain bike in a place this beautiful can't be bad." The Whiteface/Placid area was overrun with bicycles on this weekend. Hundreds of eagerly training triathletes, downhillers at the ski hill, a road race up the mountain, a welcoming party at a local pub for racers. It really felt like something special before we even got to the start line.
The actual race drew a decent field of around 230 racers including one of America's fastest XC dudes Jeremiah Bishop and his Cannondale teammates. Things started at 6:30am with a speech from the legendary Dave Weins, the playing of the always-inspiring Star Spangled Banner and finally a shotgun blast from the town's mayor (who was inexplicably wearing a Guinness top hat.) Blammo! Mass start on pavement.
Dave and I took a conservative approach to the race as we feared the five significant climbs a little bit. Before the race a fellow racer at our motel said something that stuck with me: in a race this long and hard sometimes you have to let people go. So on the first fifteen minute climb Dave and I watched as a group of about 20 fast looking guys rode away from us. We could have got in their group but it would have required a red zone effort and we figured we should save those for later. Plus we were still going faster than the other 220 or so people behind us.
The defining feature of the race is definitely the Adirondacks themselves. The second climb of the day came after about 1 hour and lasted for around 40 minutes. After an 80kph descent we looped around and came right back up again for another 40 minutes. Another wild descent and we were back at it climbing for 20 minutes or so. All of these initial 65kms took place on roads. Paved roads. Gravel roads. "Seasonal Jeep roads." Normally I'm not thrilled about riding my mountain bike on roads but this was different. These roads weren't some crummy doubletrack under a hydrocut as is so common in marathon racing. These were quiet country roads that took us to the top of mountains, past the most charming American scenery and eventually down ridiculously thrilling descents. Before the race I would have been the first to proclaim that this is not "real" mountain biking. Half way through the race I realized it's about the most "real" mountain biking I've ever done -- me and my buddy riding bikes up mountains. Bikes. Mountains. Mountain Biking.
It wasn't all smiles and sightseeing though. We were hammering pretty hard. And making up ground as folks were being spit out of that initial group we let go. In fact we were only ever passed by one person for the last 3/4 of the race. That's always good for motivation.
With about 25km to go the race entered what technical director Dave Weins described as essentially a second race course. The first three hours would be spent on various types of roads and the last hour would be completed around White Face ski resort. This section involved some decent singletrack and some muddy technical features but most significantly it would also have us completing the final difficult climb. In the racer meeting the day before Weins mentioned that he had been unable to clean the entire climb while marking the course. And he's Dave Weins. And we're not. This is why Dave and I opted to stay out of the red until the end of the race.
I think this was a good move as we managed to sweep up more remnants of the lead group as it exploded on the steep, steep ski slopes. This was a slow motion death march like I've never experienced before. Thirty plus minutes of granny gear riding and the occasional bit of walking. Walking using our bikes like crutches with our heads hanging over our handlebars... Dave and I were still making up ground though. We could have hopped in that front group 3hrs ago then melted down on this climb or let them go and accelerated throughout the race. Either way we'd be in the same place: walking up a giant ski hill at the end. Our method seemed like a lot more fun. Following the death march we bombed straight down the ski slope then rolled in 13th and 14th overall. Exhausted and satisfied. Sean and Vince rode solidly and came through shortly after with affirmation their training for the real Leadville has been sound.
On a side note we were beaten by this guy on a cyclocross bike:
This astonishes me. The bike was certainly appropriate for much of the road sections but he must have had to walk up the entire ski hill. And how the heck did he get back down to the finish line?! The descent bottomed my fork out multiple times and had me wishing for more powerful brakes. Jesus. This guy'd be going to the Olympics if he'd get a proper mountain bike! Well done.
This race receives the prestigious David Stachon Fist Pump of Approval.