Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Race Report: 2nd Leg MTB Eastern Championships '06

"To be a cyclist is to be a student of cycling's core lies pain, hard and bitter as the pit inside a juicy peach. It doesn't matter if you're sprinting for an Olympic medal, a town sign, a trailhead, or the rest stop with the homemade brownies. If you never confront pain, you're missing the essence of the sport. Without pain, there's no adversity. Without adversity, no challenge. Without challenge, no improvement. No improvement, no sense of accomplishment and no deep-down joy. Might as well be playing Tiddly-Winks." -- Scott Martin

Location: Pluakdaeng, Rayong
Date: 07 October 06
Race Type: XC
Course Type: Singletrack, mostly soil and mud. Very steep climbs with technical downhills.

I was very excited about this one since this is my first race after 9 years of being literally off-the-saddle. I was also with Bruce on the last one 9 years ago so, yeah, we go a long way. Fast-forward to the present - a couple of beer bellies, a wife, and a kid later (not necessarily in THAT order) - we found ourselves in a familiar atmosphere, ready (or not?) to jump-start the long-idled heart and muscles.

Plus we get to see a lot of cool bikes. I know I couldn't win this even if I wanted to. I mean, just look at these guys. They look like they can finish this course even with me on their backs! Nah, I'd be just chasing that life-long dream of completing something, like finishing a race.

The race started late so Bruce and I had time to walk around and mingle with the rest of the guys in tight spandex and skull guards. The quiet town of Pluakdaeng was transformed into a mini-bike village - serfs going about on their iron-horses, bazaars with merchants vending their wares, blacksmiths tending the injured beasts. There was a tent setup for a mini-market selling stuff from scarves to complete bike sets.

Men in orange overalls were all over the place. These guys overlooked the checkpoints and medivac. Obviously, this event was not shorthanded in terms of staff. They were everywhere except the race course which told us that the race was again delayed for another hour.

A liter of water (IT WAS HOT AND HUMID!) and a couple of speeches later, the race was under way. Race pictures can be found here and here. I don't have any because 1) I thought I won't have time to stop and take pictures along the way (which I was very wrong) and 2) Bruce decided to be press at the finish line. Well, that's one motivation - I had to cross the finish line at least once or else I won't have a racing picture to show the wife when I get home.

Like I said, it was hot and humid so what better way to start the course than put the first kilometer under the shades of rubber trees? The track around these trees can be very confusing and we had to pay attention to the arrows and look for the Orange-and-Yellow guys with walkie-talkies.

Before we started to feel comfortable under the shade, bam! there it was, 3 kilometers of clearing where the tallest vegetation we can see were cattail-like grass about shoulder-high (on a bike). Nothing but grass under the blazing afternoon sun! I thought,"I'll be ok". I was well hydrated with 1.5liters of water a day for 2 weeks. This induced confidence was short-lived when my hand reached for the water bottle after the first climb, 500 meters before we entered the woods! I looked at my computer just to confirm what was happening - 4kilometers out, 8kilometers more, and I was ready to bonk out! Let's see, how many B5's did I already pass? Four? And how many were in B5? 35. Damn. Swoosh! There goes another guy from B6. Double damn.

The fast downhill before the entrance to the woods was like a mad rush to escape the midday tropical heat, emphasis on MIDDAY and HEAT. To think that the course will welcome us in the shade with a nice flowing singletrack was an illusion, probably heat-induced. In reality, what lay before us was a 100-meter climb on sticky soil with a 50-degree incline. As if on cue, everyone dismounted and pushed hard.

Upon reaching the top, we mounted but only to dismount again after seeing what the descent looked like - a downhill singletrack fit for a pro! So off the bike again and down. This went on for the next 2 to 3 kilometers with places to actually mount on the bike and pedal few and far in-between. Very steep climbs and very demanding descents. A few strong groups attempted to pedal the climbs only to dismount because of the other bikers slowly pushing their bikes uphill.

Exit from the woods opened to a wide pinapple plantation. Great, another sunbathe. At least I will finally be on my bike instead of beside it. Surprisingly, the flats after the ups-and-downs of the woods was very fast! I was zooming past the field and in between the rubber trees at warp speed, almost pacing the A-Class starfighter that passed me at warp speed earlier.

The last kilometer of the course was a pain. It was a zigzag technical track near the start-finish line with LOTS of people watching. Murphy must have been wide awake that day and amongst the crowd, looking at me, perhaps, and murmuring something about a crash. And crash I did - at a switchback right after another A-Class cruiser sneaked on the inside. I slowed down to let him pass and race, which I did perfectly. What I did not realize was the sharp switchback up ahead. I slowed down some more, came to a complete stop, did not unclip on-time, and fell down like a tree - which I also did perfectly.

Medic! What? No medic? No press? With my head close to the ground, I can almost hear the distant rumblings of tires fast approaching. Oh shit, more A-class incoming! The thought of tires and metal going over me was a welcome stimulus, the pain went away and I was on my bike not a moment too soon.

One lap down, one more to go. I felt I still had enough reserves to finish the race in a decent position other than last - I later learned that about half of the racers in B5-class fell after the first lap - so I pushed on. So on to the tarmac, into the rubber tree forest, and out to the grass field averaging 20kph. I was careful not to burn all my matches before entering the woods. It was already late in the afternoon and the Sun-God was still unrelenting.

And then the unthinkable. Three kilometers out, I was flagged by one of the Orange sentries. He said he had to take my number and I was being disqualified for missing a checkpoint. WTF? Realizing that it will take more than my boyish charms to persuade the guy for letting me continue, even if I had to backtrack to the checkpoint that I missed, I removed my tag and went back to the start-finish line.

It was over. Destroyed by the elements and blinded by my lack of experience, I not only missed the checkpoint but the realization of my goal as well. A while ago, I can almost hear Greg LeMond biting my ear saying "It never gets easier, you only go faster" egging me during the long, fast stretches. In the end, it was Scott Martin who accompanied me on my way back to the start-finish line. It will be a while before this pain goes away, 24 days in fact when the 3rd leg goes underway.


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