Category Archives: MTB

Winter MTB Videos

These are a few videos posted over the winter from a couple great rides.

A bunch of us made it up to Kingdom Trails’ WinterBike festival:

Driven mad by permanently iced trails at home, a huge crew went to Batsto:

The Drexel oldheads had a near-calamitous ride on those iced trails:

I survived the ending of that last one just fine, despite the ice water soaking.

Race Report: D&L Canal Fat Epic

About two months ago a whole bunch of ECCC mountain bikers lead by Ian, Kenny, and Forrest gave me a fat bike. I almost literally haven’t ridden anything else since. It’s less of a bike and more of a pet monster best friend that sleeps in the basement and goes on adventures with me. This Saturday’s undertaking was our first race, the D&L Fat Epic, an 116 mile gravel path fat bike race along the Delaware and Lehigh canal trails from Washington’s Crossing to Allentown and back, organized by Hilltop Bicycles.

D&L Fat Epic promo image.

False advertising: The race did not look like this shot from the flyer.

Route map and non-elevation.

Route map and non-elevation.

Recap

Fortunately for me it did not snow as the organizers hoped, though we got close with the dusting earlier this week. Thinking about this event in advance was a bit awkward and quite different from summer racing: If conditions were good, I figured it’d be a 9–12 hour race; if it snowed, it could easily become a 24 hour race or longer. That’s a huge difference, and a much greater span than summer where I generally have my time estimates dialed in. In the end though the trail was muddy in several sections but others were very fast, at least by fat bike standards. Wind was minimal but with the riverside trail largely exposed and the sun not making an appearance, temperatures never went above the mid-30s.

In the very early going, by far the brightest sun of the whole day.

In the very early going, by far the brightest sun of the whole day.

Unfortunately I did not have my act together and missed the start. Dragging my feet about the whole affair, I arrived  in what would have been just barely in time for the opening gun but still didn’t have my equipment fully arranged. I had not been able to acquire a frame bag for my bike in time, and my untested, last minute, half-assed stopgap solution to pack extra clothes turned out to be at best quarter-assed, so it took a while to get strapped up and rolling. A powerful “Do as I say, not as I do” testament to not trying out new things on raceday…

That was a huge bummer as it meant I missed the best part of the race, some 40 fat bikers all streaming along on the very narrow trail as the field slowly disintegrated. On the “upside,” I got right down to the heart of the business: Grinding along the totally flat, completely non-technical rail trail for hours and hours on end. Normally that could at least be maybe justified with scenic views, but not on such a dreary overcast day. Needless to say, I had a lot of quiet time to ponder the absurdity of a race premised on taking some of the most rugged and capable human powered vehicles in existence and dropping them down on a basically linear, terrain-free route. Definitely the kind of “I’m-a-gonna do this ’cause I’m-a-gonna do this!” blockheaded project that I support 100% or more.

Mukmuk all loaded up and mudded up, at the halfway point.

Mukmuk all loaded up and mudded up, at the halfway point.

One semi-subconscious true upside to missing the start was that I didn’t have anyone to be tempted to keep up with, as hard race-pace efforts are challenging for my lower back. I had also been pretty careful to put as much as possible on my bike rather than in my hydration pack. Still, after about an hour my back hurt significantly from a combo of extra supplies weight, chugging along at a good pace with no terrain to force frequent posture shifts, and a slightly more aggressive saddle height for this gravel route.  I was pretty set on turning around at the 1st-quarter aid station and heading home.

When I got there though I was ahead of the positive end of my internal schedule and had already caught a third of the field, so at that point it was game on. Knowing I had more than enough water, I didn’t even pause at the tent so that I could put a few more minutes on the handful of people refueling there. Continuing on without any easy bailout was definitely a risk, but I was able to keep my back under control and the more serious spine/nerve symptoms I’ve learned to monitor didn’t develop at all.

After that, catching people became naturally harder and harder. I lost several more minutes falling on rocks portaging my bike along the river edge to skirt an active construction site completely blocking the path. Another good bunch of minutes I lost to navigation. Of course the several seemingly tricky spots on the route which I’d studied were no-brainers in real life, while another junction that seemed completely straightforward beforehand for some reason left me uncertain. Fortunately another rider, Shawn, came by shortly and helpfully confirmed the way with his GPS.

At the halfway point I also spent a good amount of extra time to change everything but my bibs and leg warmers. Obviously not in contention for a high result and with the people around me in the standings fairly well spread out, I thought I could make it home ok in my sweat-soaked, thinner outfit even with sundown coming soon, but it wasn’t worth it.

That was probably a good call as I slowed down quite a bit in the home stretch. As a guy at the final aid station put it in the best racing pep talk I’ve ever gotten:

Ok, you’re two to three hours from the end, the winners just finished, the sun’s going down, and you’re deeeep in no-man’s land so I really doubt you’ll see another competitor up or down for the rest of this race. But go, go, go!

Stopping there was humorously incongruous. By that point they had their routine totally down and were the model of a high efficiency pit stop. But I just wanted to eat cookies and chat, so I couldn’t understand why they were so eager for me to “Go, go go!” He was right, however. Having not seen anyone since the halfway stop, I wound up going for four hours in the second half of the race without seeing another competitor. Eventually I just got complacent and was moving smoothly but relatively slowly when out of nowhere a rider, Bill, caught up. That was great though as all of a sudden I remembered I was racing and the two of us rocked out the last seven miles at a quick pace for a strong finish.

Outcome

In the end I finished 19th of 39 starters, 34 finishers, with official race time of 10:14 (including my 14 minute late start!) and 9 hours of actual riding. It’s tempting to be a little frustrated: I should be faster. I have been faster. Objectively though that’s pretty good. In a few rough patches I reflected a bit on the many people I know, even active cyclists, who would be real jazzed to just go and ride like that on essentially a whim, and I kept chugging along.

All told the D&L Fat Epic was a great day, assuming you’re into that kind of thing. Hilltop Bicycles and the organizing crew did a good job with this event debut. In most ways and in the style of this kind of racing it was very low key: The aid stations were minimal though much appreciated and the volunteers awesome; the course was completely unmarked once out of the starting lot; nobody knew the trail was out at the construction site and the way completely blocked; and the final aid station got booted by the park rangers at sundown for not having a permit. But they had really great, relevant trophies for everybody; warm food at the finish; and in a surprise, everybody got a Mehler bikepacking tent. More tellingly, people came from a broad geographic range just to do this event. A large crew was down from the far reaches of upstate New York. Having people willing to travel and make a whole weekend of a race is a great positive indicator. I would definitely do it again.

The finishers' trophy, railroad spikes I believe actually collected from the trailside.

The finishers’ trophy, railroad spikes I believe actually collected from the trailside.

Perseverance

More than the solid finish, this is the first ultraendurance-ish race I’ve done since abandoning last year’s Cascades RAAM qualifier due to back and neck injuries from an  earlier 24hr MTB solo. It’s actually even the first long-ish ride I’ve done since then other than a casual double century earlier this summer. Going in I had real doubts about the wisdom of signing up—road riding remains somewhat uncomfortable after more than about two hours, and I’m still regularly seeing a chiropractor. Being a bit tired but otherwise in solid shape today is thus a big relief. It was also deeply rewarding to be ten hours in and maybe not too fast, but still pedaling smooth, mentally on board, and not at all struggling despite not having done a ton of riding lately. All those hours and hours of ridiculous training rides the past few years are in there somewhere. As satisfying is the competence to just head out and do a ride like that without real worries, with almost no hope of on-trail support or pick-up, just above freezing temps all day, and a fairly new bike and a lot of new, last minute gear.

It’s difficult to classify this sort of thing as “fun”—the couple times I stopped I got a stream of text updates from my fellow fatbiker friend Forrest (who, to be fair, is in NH and couldn’t make it) about his much more exciting activities throughout the day, like sipping homemade hot chocolate while luxuriating on a couch with a warm blanket. But this is definitely what I’d rather be doing.

The ECCC votes to make fat biking mandatory.

The ECCC votes to make fat biking mandatory.

Race Report: Burn 24 MTB Enduro

Last weekend my wife Caitlin T (PBCO/Tufts), Alex L (QCW/Temple), Johann L (Tricycles/UPenn), and Adam L (Tricycles/Drexel) went down to North Carolina for the Burn 24 Hour MTB Challenge at Dark Mountain.

The dream team.  And some random hanger-on.

The dream team. And some random hanger-on.

They did the 4 person relay and will have to recount their own details (Caitlin has a race report up), but an outsider summary sounded like this:

  • 12pm: “What a beautiful day—woo, bikes! Let’s race!”
  • 8pm: “Let’s make some dinner! Awesome race! Party times, woo!”
  • 12am: “…”
  • 4am: “Wake up, damnit, wake up, it’s your lap!”  “No! No! And don’t ever talk to me again!”
  • 12pm: “Well, I might MTB again sometime… if forced… maybe.”
"Yep, you're doin' a great job there Adam.  Great job.  Keep it up."

“Yep, you’re doin’ a great job there Adam. Great job. Keep it up.”

Intense logistics and strategizing!  Also, they completely stopped checking on me, and I needed checking on!

Intense logistics and strategizing! Also, they completely stopped checking on me, and I needed checking on!

I finished 2nd of ~15 in the Men’s Open Solo race. The winner did 18 laps and 3rd place 15; I did 17 laps in 24:17 hours race time, exactly 17 hours riding, for 108 miles, 13400 ft climbing. The GPS track is an amazing mess of scribbles.  Fantastically, a couple guys in the 40+ bracket crushed us all. As much as cycling is an old man’s sport, endurance mountain biking is a sport for grizzled old men with bones as old as the dirt underneath.

That result was completely unexpected. Work has been real busy in 2013—I wound up riding just a few hours less than I slept the preceding week, and went straight from the weekend to another work trip—and I’ve been MTBing very little the past year. This was really just a training and fun race to ride as much as I could, and I was mentally prepared for that to be as little as 6–8 hours.

But in the end it was a very rewarding experience and fitness check. Besides work, cycling this year has been tough. The last ~18 months or so I’ve largely “just” been distance riding, and balancing riding with other life priorities, travel, etc., my force and speed have really suffered. It’s discouraging to go to Greentree every week and just be pack fodder after being reliably able to touch the breakaway the past two summers. Late in the race then it was rewarding to still be riding well, rolling down the trail in the Carolina sun, and reflect that this is exactly what I’ve been “training” for and here I was, with 2nd place all but locked up.

The full(er) story & some technical notes follow below.

The real accomplishment was stepping onto the podium without falling over.

The real accomplishment was stepping onto the podium without falling over.

Recap

The defining moment of the race came just after midnight, my 12th hour break. I was still riding well, but without joy. I’d even been chased by a dog on a lonely, lonely stretch. Caitlin was out then and I was terrified she would be chased as well and come in… not happy, to say the least. I decided to clean up, wait to check on her, and go to sleep. Luckily the dog was chased off and she never saw it. But just as I was about to tell her to let me sleep as long as I could, she said “Yeah, Joe, you’re still in second, two laps up on third!” File this under THINGS TO NOT TELL A YOUNG-ISH ADULT MALE WHOM YOU ARE TRYING TO ENCOURAGE TO MAKE HEALTHY AND WISE LIFE DECISIONS.

Instantly I faced a strategic dilemma: Try to crank out more laps, or sleep and hope to recoup the time in better riding afterward? Any sport in which power napping is a valid strategy is an awesome one…

When the night calls...

When the night calls…

Full moon rising!

Full moon rising!

In the end I took a nap, figuring: 1) Otherwise I’d just wasted half an hour; 2) A break would ensure my lights lasted the night; 3) Third place probably wouldn’t be able to regain 2 laps on me. So I told Caitlin to wake me up in an hour and a half… and in 90 minutes told her that again, for a good 3 hour nap before heading back out at 5am.

Then: Near disaster—3rd place did two laps while I was sleeping! At an 8am break I learned I’d only been 4 minutes ahead of him at 6am. That’s nothing! I had to assume he was passing me even then.

At that point there was nothing to do but go crush four straight laps and hope I caught him or he fell apart. It must have actually been pretty exciting in that 3am–9am period as he got on lap and then tried to chase me down. Well, as exciting as a race drawn out over 24 hours with dudes riding around like zombies can be. The volunteers at the halfway aid station clearly knew a close race was going on and were real real stoked. 3rd place told me afterward they’d been excitedly giving him splits on me every lap.

In the end though that was his high water mark. I must have started my 5am block just ahead of him on course so it was fortunate I hadn’t slept any longer, but after that I reclaimed 5–10 minutes a lap. Unknown to me he saw this happening and gave up around 10am.

"Yep, we don't know these idiots.  Just here for a Sunday ride..."

“Yep, we don’t know these idiots. Just here for a Sunday ride…”

On trail though, I didn’t know. Realistically I figured he’d probably stop at 16 laps, but if I stopped I’d be rolling the dice if he slogged out another. Plus, the race ain’t over till it’s over.

Coming through the grasstrack start/finish loop to head out for that final, 17th, lap was loaded with trepidation. I hadn’t actually managed 4 straight laps without a break since the 1st & 2nd blocks of the race. That’s ~25 miles, in and of itself more than enough mountain biking for a good day. It was clear this was going to hurt.

Ultimately it was indeed probably one of the five physically hardest things I’ve ever done. Tellingly, 3 of the other 4 are also MTB enduros. My legs were still spinning well, my hands and arms solid enough to hold me on course, but my lower back rapidly degraded from passable to completely unforgiving. It was actually a fascinating lesson in physiology. It turns out you need your lower back for all sorts of things besides pedaling—like hard steering, and reaching for water bottles! On the steepest pitches I was finally forced to walk. On lesser climbs the effort required to put my lower back into it and anchor the pedal strokes was intense. How many times you can tap a completely tapped muscle before real bad things happen?

It felt like forever, but I focused on the lap mileage ticking away, no matter how slowly, and just kept rolling around. Eventually I hit the top of the course, saw daylight, and sailed down to the finish, safe in 2nd.

This is the end; my only friend, the end; of our elaborate plans, the end.

This is the end; my only friend, the end; of our elaborate plans, the end.

Tech Notes

For a few technical notes, my current ride is a carbon Jamis DXC Pro (26″ wheels). This is an amazing bike: Great climber, responsive, but very comfortable. Osprey Packs gets a shout-out for sending me a free replacement bite valve in very short order in time for the race. Rudy Project gets a big thumbs down; one of my helmet strap adjustors cracked for no reason early in the race, a significant problem later trying to stabilize a heavy helmet light. That’s the third straight Rudy I’ve had fail like that and won’t be buying them again.

Nutritionally I did pretty well. Caitlin and I have been experimenting with sticky rice cakes from the most recent Skratch Labs book, and I ate a couple of these per hour on average. That was augmented with some Tofurkey and cheese slices, muffins, bananas, and oranges in the breaks. This worked out really well, I had zero gut rot, indigestion, or nausea throughout the entire race.

The one downside was that in the last third solid food became very unappealing. I had to consciously work on continually eating, and needed something like protein shakes or yogurt. I’ve been meaning to figure out a liquid diet I like and will have to get on that. The last block I drank a couple bottles of Accelerade to compensate for eating less solids, but otherwise drank water and Nuun, caveat a couple sips of Coca Cola early on.

"Mmm...  Peanut butter... or peanut butter?"

“Mmm… Peanut butter… or peanut butter?”

Strategically, it worked out really well to break the day up into 4 hour blocks. Even if nothing else, that reduces the whole thing down to mentally palatable chunks. Each block I would break for a bit to refuel, stretch, and beg the guys to do some minor bike work. Every other block I cleaned up with towels and baby wipes and switched out all of my clothes. One thing I did have to fight a bit mentally was to stay focused on 4 hour blocks, rather than trying to do a set number of laps per block and winding up grinding out one too many.

Mountain biking is haaaaard!

Mountain biking is haaaaard!

Buuurn!

Unfortunately this was the final Burn 24; the organizers are, appropriately enough, burned out and taking a break. That’s a shame because they did a great job and it’s a really good course. I highly recommend anyone with the opportunity to go ride on those Dark Mountain trails outside Wilkesboro, NC. It was like racing an all singletrack version of the Kingdom Trails, a high compliment.

Of course, what really made the weekend possible was being with a great crew of friends. I had almost no mechanical problems, but it was incredibly helpful to have guys on hand to deal with what little stuff inevitably cropped up. Other than the obviously necessary 3am gruffness, the group attitude also made the whole thing a great time. It really helps to be with good people when it’s 4am, pitch black out, raining lightly, and you need to chamois up and head out…

See y’all out there!  Just a few more photos are in the Flickr gallery.

"That was great.  Now let's never ever do this again," said everyone.

“That was great. Now let’s never ever do this again,” said everyone.

More Secret Bike Races: Beroun Bike Weekend

Saturday Caitlin and I took a train to Beroun and then hiked over to Karlštejn.  Of course, the first order of business was to find coffee for Ms Thompson, so we walked to the town center—a full kilometer in the wrong direction!

In any event, coming into the main square, what did we see?

Mmm... Looks like some kind of run or something.

Oh man, that kid's got a number plate on... Maybe a bike race?!?!

We had indeed stumbled onto the opening act of the Beroun Bike Weekend, kicking off with a ridiculous amount of kids’ races around the town square.  This was only made more awesome by the fact that we had no idea what was going on and no one spoke English, so we could only assume the entire setup was for the kids’ races.  And, let me tell you, there was a lot of setup.

This is a way more elaborate finish than I've seen at some US national championships...

Food trucks, with the beer flowing readily by 9am at the latest.

Spin bike demo truck. These three people were in this thing for at least an hour.

He's a one man band caught in a trio... The first of two bands to play throughout the morning.

The awesome thing about kids' races is they bring spectators like nothing else can.

There were no less than four giant inflatable arches around the quarter mile square.

A strict bouncy castle regimen is now the only Joe Kopena-approved warmup routine.

A lot of the activity was actually really neat, and very kids-focused.  Several organizations had tents up teaching kids about road safety with different games and coloring books, in addition to more generic fun like facepainting.  There was also a really sweet, super well put together micro pump track thing for tiny kids to ride some bumps and curves on.

Lining up for the bump track.

Shreddin' some gnar... on push bikes!

The local police had a whole bunch of coloring books and posters about riding in traffic. I looked for the much-needed "How to Avoid Death by Angry Tram" but they were all taken already.

I have no idea what the guys on the left were teaching, but it seemed to involve painting things.

The table on the right had a guessing game about road signs. I... did not win.

The wisely chosen white tiger paint provided the necessary aerodynamic and ferociousness advantage to propel her to the win over the orange tiger girl. True story!

Racing was also in no shortage of supply, with a ridiculous number of categories divvying up the horde of little kids.  Boys, girls, toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary school kids, everybody got a category, almost all with a whole bunch of other people in it, with each age group doing another lap beyond the previous one.

Pre-schooler boys get ready to rip it...

Some highly technical number placement adjustment going on.

From now on, this is the new gold standard in pace car technology.

And they're off!

The field comes back through the gates.

Girl pre-schoolers, goin' a whole lot faster than those wimpy dude pre-schoolers...

A girls' race winner after her epic victory. She looks way more credible as a bike racer than I ever have.

We gather there was some crazy mountain bike race there later in the afternoon, as well as some kind of gran fondo ride/race the next day, but we eventually managed to determine it wouldn’t start until late afternoon and couldn’t stick around.  The course looked awesome though, and was apparently quite long.  As we left organizers had started moving barricades to create a prologue sequence that looked super crazy to watch, wrapping and twisting all throughout town before making its way to the woods and an egregiously long opening climb.

Start line. (photo by mtbs.cz)

Across the Berounka river. (photo by mtbs.cz)

A long stretch of the trail we hiked out of Beroun was actually course taped, quite likely for this race.  We were super disappointed they started too late and we were not caught by a raging tsunami of mountain bike racers, especially given the seeming Czech predilection for starting all categories at once.  Except in kids’ races of course.  That’s serious business.

There are a few more photos in the Flickr gallery.

Genesis Bike Prague MTB Race

Coming to Prague, I knew it had a pretty strong MTB scene and much less of a road cycling vibe.  This has turned out to be ridiculously more true than I expected.

Yesterday I was out riding, on my road bike, when yet another path just turned to dirt.  I figured, fine, whatever, I’m tired of this, and just kept climbing up the now-dirt, steep little pitch rather than turning around yet again.  Then course tape started appearing, blocking off side trails.  Then a steady trickle of mountain bikers, fortunately also going up rather than down, with number plates…

Coming over the top, I found myself in the middle of the biggest mountain bike race I’ve ever seen, right on the outskirts of Prague.  The trail I’d come up was the finishing climb of Genesis Bike Prague MTB, though fortunately no racing had begun yet.  It dumped into the start/finish chute, where hundreds and hundreds of mountain bikers of all types where milling about in early staging.

The front of staging.

(all photos by Genesis Bike Prague, I didn’t have my camera with me)

By the time the race kicked off, I was estimating there had to be 1000 people in there.  It seemed like such a high number though that I kept discounting in my head, arbitrarily cutting back down to five, six, seven hundred.  Sure enough, the results pages report 1027 starters.  To be fair, I have not raced out west where there are some bigger races, but that’s huge, three to five times bigger than almost all MTB races in at least the northeast US, and that’s not even looking at the hundreds of people hanging around on bikes, spectating.  I haven’t seen much like it since BikeLine used to put on races at Belmont Plateau in Philly with 600–800+ racers back in the MTB heyday, or the year MTB Single Speed Worlds came to State College and had 600+ racers.  The vendor expo area was as big and interesting as that for the Philly pro road race.

Part of the vendor expo area.

Part of a standard city block's length of industrial strength bike wash stands.

The podium on the rock concert-ready, full size stage.

The field was a hugely diverse mix, from near-pro looking types, to clearly very recreational riders and bikes.  All of these started in a single, ridiculously big wave, caveat the earlier kids’ race.  There seemed to be no controls or even self-imposed patterns over staging, though everyone seemed orderly out of the blocks, even working through much slower traffic.

Videos and pictures of the course itself are on the website.  From the start, several miles of highway were blocked off for an initial long climb to the other side of the park to spread the massive field out before hitting trails.  Once woodside, there were two options, one a 60km (~37mi) circuit.  That’s a fairly long race by typical MTB standards, a marathon rather than a straight XC, though from the pictures it looks to be distinctly on the less technical end of the spectrum.  The other option was an even less technical 35km (22mi) course on mostly roads and paths, explicitly noted by the website to be for recreational riders out for a fairly casual ride in a race atmosphere.  Kind of like an MTB gran fondo, though without the typical cost of a race, let alone the gouging gran fondos—registration was a very low ~$20US.  The trails themselves look like fun, though mostly more or less paths and some double track.

Course picture.

Course picture.

Course picture.

Course picture.

All in all, it seemed like a really sweet event.  It clearly incorporated aspects of both a race and a huge group fun ride, which I think is cool and an important direction events need to consider in keeping races sustainable.  I have to confess that Pavel Gonda, former ECCC superstar (NYU), had mentioned to me a few days ago that there was an MTB race going on nearby this weekend, but I had no idea he meant basically in Prague.  It’s somewhat unfortunate I didn’t realize it would be within riding distance and pretty non-technical or I would have thought more about taking him up on looking for a bike to borrow.

Prodoli

Following today’s workshop I was wandering about and heard the “faint” stirrings of Euro-pop way off in the distance. It turns out all these little walled-in town squares and narrow roads basically turn the whole city into an amplifier…  Obviously compelled toward it, halfway across the city I found an open air concert, apparently a benefit “for the gorillas.” Which gorillas or why or how were a complete mystery because that’s literally all anybody said, with no explication and no signage, pamphlets, or anything—in any language—but I am sure some primates somewhere feel better about themselves now.

In any event, there were a lot of stands filled to the brim with sausage, many other stands baking fresh cinnamon rolls, and then there were these folks!

The Prodoli Bikes stand.

Prodoli, it turns out, is a Czech manufacturer of high end road, mountain, and cyclocross bikes. I gather the frames aren’t made here, presumably the carbon is laid up in Asia with everyone else’s, but it seems like they do the painting, finishing, and final assembly here, though I could be wrong.  Almost all are carbon fiber with a mix of classic lines and newer, Specialized-style compact sloping road frames.  Part of their deal seems to be a heavy emphasis on aesthetics, with some really good basic stylings as well as more ornate, airbrushed artwork.  A lot of them look fantastic.

Seemed like their top-of-the-line road bike. Handlebars look awesome, I'm a big fan of the comfort of fat-wing geometries.

Bumpy bikes!

The blue lava frame in the background is very nice.

Another road frame---this stem not slammed, the horror!

I'm not sure I'd want to ride it forever and ever, but I certainly love this frame art.

Gorgeous. But a bit expensive to hang as art...

This I find a bit too creepy, but it's well done.

Their more traditionally styled bikes also look pretty sharp.

The crawling ants on hexes—a combo that seems to happen often, for some reason—is my favorite of those on display and looks amazing.  Prodoli’s gallery has a bunch of other good designs as well.  Even some of the wheels have ornate patterns.  I particularly like the Butterfly, the blue variant of the Romance, also the blue variant of the Lava, the Square, and the Oxygen team design.  In general I prefer a lighter, more open aired aesthetic, but Flames is a super well executed design that I could see a lot of people getting behind.  The Spider design also looks a lot less creepy on a solid background with less realistic bloated creepy-crawlies.  However, in addition to the Ants layout above, which must be new as it’s not in the gallery, my favorite is probably the clean, simple CSK team design.  There’s a whole bunch more in the gallery beside these, plus a custom design program.

I thought it was neat to see a local bike company, and to have a high end manufacturer—I don’t see anything of theirs under about $3500 USD; divide the CZK prices on the website by 20 for a rough idea—out at a smallish, random Saturday benefit festival.  I don’t know why I went to all the trouble and worry of packing up my bike to bring over here when I could have gotten one of these beauties around the corner, especially now that I’ve got that credit card linked to Caitlin’s account.  I mean, it’d be supporting the Czech economy, buying local, helping an independent manufacturer, all that kind of good stuff…

ECCC MTB 2011: UVM Easterns @ Catamount/Kingdom Trails

Two weekends ago wrapped up this fall’s ECCC MTB season.  A short race report is in the wrap-up.  Full results are on the calendar.

Alongside the now classic Catamount races, this weekend debuted yet another new venue to the conference.  In fact, as far as we can tell, the races on Burke Mountain in the Kingdom Trails were the first races ever allowed in the trail system.  Speaking to one of the KTA people afterward, they said they approved the event in order to get more exposure among our racers.  I think that’s awesome and hopefully it worked out.  Certainly Sully and I talked up the Kingdom an awful lot.  The weather wasn’t really compelling to keep riding, it was kind of dreary and wet all day Sunday, but I think a number of people did partake of the opportunity to go ride the other trails.

Men's A lines up.

Yep... How the mighty have fallen.

Heading off into the fields.

Women's A in the opening stretch.

Not too surprisingly, the weekend had a good bit more riders than the generally small season has had.  At about 140 riders on Saturday despite the weather—periodic rain and even thunderstorms—attendance was really solid.  Even better, about 110 made the long transfer from Burlington to East Burke, surprisingly good retention.  I had been guessing more like ~80, so that was pretty exciting.

Apparently it was a little tiring out there.

Yep. And these guys did really well!

We laugh at the suffering of others...

Even beyond that, I had a great weekend.  Catamount is basically like a home race at this point.  Even though we transferred over to Burke Saturday night, we still managed to drop by and see the Sullivans for a bit.  Keeping up with an unplanned, implicit tradition, I also got a call Sunday from an old friend I’d been trying to get a hold of for a while.  We only talk basically a couple times a year, and MTB Easterns Sunday has just happened to be one of those days the past couple years.

Slalom time!

Airborne.

The banquet.

There was a lot of talk at the banquet about what to do for next year.  Lots of people seem pretty intrigued by Eliminator format racing and some of the other potential changes and additions we’ve introduced.  Other people are real hesitant to break from pattern.  Either way, I don’t think it’ll really change much unless we manage to really change the promoters and teams.   Short track isn’t unpopular because it’s intrinsically bad.  It’s unpopular in large part because most of the courses are pretty unpleasant.  We’re going to face the exact same problems with Eliminator unless promoters get more serious about making good courses, rather than just showing up at a mountain and being handed some fire road to race on.

Men's a STXC lines up.

Hughes and Jesus goin' at it!

Hamlin showing them all how it's done.

Bella and Marie tearing around the STXC.

A sprint for the line.

Generally next year I think we need to get more serious about a bunch of things.  License control has gotten a bit too lax, there were a number of riders needed things fixed for nationals.  We’ll probably also have a more formal promoter process with the race deposits and so on to prevent issues we had this year.  What the scoring crew will look like I have no idea.  Sam’s talking about moving out west, which would be really unfortunate in many ways.  I would miss him a lot, and it would be a big loss of knowledge and experience.  Scoring went extremely well this year.  For example, we were ready for and whipped through the Easterns awards ceremonies in no time.  Hopefully Stu and/or Tim would still be available so we would not be training an entirely new set of people.

In any event, that’s the end of yet another ECCC MTB season.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

ECCC MTB 2011: UNH @ Attitash/Cranmore

 UNH rocked it out at Attitash and Cranmore this past weekend, the first time the conference has raced at those venues.  A short race report is in the USAC Weekly Wrap.  Results are on the ECCC Calendar.

This weekend basically started off right: I got home from work and Caitlin goes:

“Mmm… Somehow I didn’t think you’d already left already.  Don’t you have any idea where the race is?”

“Up north somewhere?”

“Yeah, it’s at Mt Washington.”

“Oh.”

Mt Washington is pretty damn far up there; it’s often taken us 11 hours to get there.

In any event, fortunately it took Tim and I only almost exactly 9 hours to get there, with just a little bit of traffic.  Coming back was the same, even with an unnecessarily lengthy dinner stop.  This was also my first weekend in a long, long time traveling without any of the equipment; Sam had it from the previous weekend.  It was pretty awesome to be able to roll up to the start about two hours beforehand and crawl into the back of the Prius for an hour nap…

Upon actually learning where it was, I was pretty excited about the location though we wouldn’t really wind up spending any time in town.  In many ways North Conway is not really my kind of place.  Too many trendy skiers, lots of shopping, steak houses, etc..  But it does have those gear shops going for it, and we’ve had some great trips up there to go winter backpacking on Mt Washington.

The venues worked out fairly well.  Cranmore seemed like a pretty good XC race.  Substantially more climbing than the previous races have had.  On the other hand, some of the descents were a bit fast fire road and double track affairs with some unfortunate step downs and waterbars.  I think the speed let people get in over their heads; there was notably more blood at this race than we’ve seen in a while.

Women's A starts up the XC opening climb.

Tom Sampson (Plymouth) recovers from a flat to take the day.

Short Track at Attitash was workable but really only after we built a bunch of CX style chicane sequences to break up and slow down a long, steep fire road descent.  This highlighted that there was no way Attitash would be able to host XC after their trails were destroyed by Hurricane Irene.  In hindsight we probably should have moved STXC to Cranmore as well, but it was workable.

Women's A/B short track lines up.

Derek Harnden (UVM) finally claims a victory this season.

Scott Igo (UVM) proving you really don't need to ever stop racing in the ECCC.

Downhill went off without a hitch.  Everyone seemed pretty happy with the DH trails around Attitash.  Super D was its usual terrifying affair.  The early sections were wide open gravel descents through a couple super high speed turns, not well suited at all for XC bikes.  Everybody seemed happy by the bottom though.

Early in the Men's C Super D.

Women's Super D leaders over the first crest.

Interestingly, Jesus Martinez (Columbia) crashed fairly bad in the XC, breaking his handlebars, frame, helmet, and some other stuff.  He got a bike from somewhere for the STXC but was clearly hurting.  Combined with skipping the previous weekend, that enabled Alex McAndrew (Clarkson) and Nik Patalano (Northeastern) to jump ahead of him in the season omnium standings.  All three have a shot at it this weekend, particularly with double points on the line for Easterns, so we’ll see what happens.  Could be exciting.  Nik sounds super pumped for it.

A couple other thoughts:

  • Team licenses are a definite issue.  We have a bunch of one-man shows here and in MTB we don’t really have the numbers to turn those guys away.   They also tend to be less clued in than people on the road side.
  • We need to push riders, particularly downhillers, that they need to alert us to course problems in time to actually do something about it.  Right as we’re about to get on the lift to go up and start the race is not the best time to inform us the Super D course has lots of marking problems…
  • I think we’re really going to push back a bit against running Super D in the future.  It sounds awesome, but it’s very unpredictable and tough to have a good course.  Cross Country racers get in over their head, Downhillers opt out of it, and all in all I think more people would participate in just a second straight up Downhill.

More photos from this successful weekend are in the gallery.

ECCC MTB 2011: NU @ Holiday/Jiminy

Over the weekend Northeastern hosted their second race of the 2011 MTB season, taking the conference back to Holiday Farm and Jiminy Peak after not being there for a couple years.  Short write-up is on the USAC Collegiate Weekly Wrap; full results on the calendar.

Nik and Rob realize one of them's about to bump the other out of slalom.

All in all I think the weekend went super well.  Northeastern’s pretty on the ball as promoters.  If you know what to look for you can tell that they have established a decent trend of passing on knowledge from year to year, e.g., simple things like having receipt slips printed out.  Attendance seemed solid but was below previous years’.  Downhill was a notably exception, with good local turnout for the Open race boosting that over 70 riders.

Allison and Molly rock out in slalom.

The slalom course was interesting and worked well.  It was buried in the woods and carved in and out of trees so it had a very different, much closer feel than almost all slalom courses.  It fits right into the trail network there, so for a change Holiday is planning on keeping it intact.  A minor issue we’ll have to watch for in the future is that the lanes had no gap between them at the finish, so setting up the gates was precarious and they got knocked around a bit.

Men's C on the short track course.

I spent a fair bit of time over the weekend taking photos.  In some ways this is a little sad as I only have a passing interest in photography and would much rather walk around or conduct operations.  However, we don’t really have that many people taking and making readily available high quality photos throughout the MTB season.  We need more of that kind of stuff if we’re going to really push back against the MTB attendance drop, so I’ve been consciously taking more photos.

One thought I had for the future is possibly buying a decent, action-photo ready camera for the conference and passing it around throughout the weekend.  That way I don’t have to spend time on it, new people get to try taking photos with more than a point & shoot, and I reliably wind up with the photos at the end of the weekend.

Women's A lines up for short track.

I also spent a fair bit of the weekend trying to consciously standoff a bit from the timing and officiating while still also being there.  This coming weekend I will actually miss an ECCC MTB race for the first time in over six years.  Not that long ago this would be almost unthinkable in terms of the quality of the event, but the guys are super on the ball even with the new timing equipment thrown into the mix.  Other than a few errors that have crept into the short track results recently, I’m actually not concerned at all, which is somewhat of a relief at long last.

More photos are in my flickr gallery.  Amanda Buerger (NU) also has a good bunch of photos up on FB.

NU packs it up for the day.

Southern Directions

As noted, this year’s Lehigh turnout was unfortunately small, even by the standards of our southern MTB races.  The racing was still solid, but the endurance events can’t really get much smaller without suffering.  It’s a shame because those are some really good courses, particularly the phenomenal short track course, and it’s just a great, low key, low cost weekend.

A number of us spent a fair bit of time talking about this, and the overall gradual decline in MTB participation from southern schools over the past couple years.  My best theory is that we’ve let the schedule drift too far northward, an effect caused by several issues:

  • Many southern, XC only venues like Ringwood, NJ and Mt Joy, PA that were used back in the day just aren’t workable given the importance the modern ECCC places on gravity events.
  • Other central venues like Jiminy Peak have lapsed as the teams associated with them, in this case UMass, have waned a bit, or as the conference has had negative experiences, such as at Plattekill.
  • PennState’s MTB squad losing momentum as a racing organization and no longer putting on events.  It’s tough to put such a load on one team, but they were really the cornerstone of southern MTB ridership and together with Lehigh the only consistent promoters.

All of that has combined with the general turn of the century decline in MTB popularity, as well as the usual team ups and downs.  For example, both Drexel and U. Delaware used to routinely field over a dozen riders, but both have moved almost entirely away from MTB racing.

When PennState first lapsed putting on MTB events a years ago, I don’t think we realized how big a deal it would be.  At the time no one thought much of it because it seemed like a typical short break, and their events had been shaky for a few years—a cancellation, some really rough edges on the weekend logistics, and so on.  However, though probably impossible, in hindsight we should have realized those problems were symptomatic of larger issues and the squad was about to fall off the scene.

Combined with lapses at the other traditional central venues, dropping out that second reliable southern race shifted the season schedule dramatically northward.  Over time that shift has slowly eliminated the southern MTB racing squads.  The lack of southern races has let their numbers and engagement with the season dry up.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that there are simple solutions to this.  A few of us have been taking very personal action to try and rebuild the MTB numbers down here, but that’s a slow, unsure, and limited process.  Some other ideas include:

  • Organizing clinics and trying to build numbers with a wider net.  This has been talked about in different shapes for a long time now, but it needs some student leadership to take charge and make it happen.  The conference can support and help organize these kinds of activities, but ultimately there’s enough else going on in the conference that this task needs to be driven by some new people.
  • Making a commitment to continued southern races.  Conroy from NU pointed out that even when they held a race in the south last year, at Blue Mountain, few teams and southern riders showed up.  However, I think those teams effectively just don’t exist anymore.  They either don’t have riders, or aren’t thinking about racing.  In some sense, we need to make the investment in keeping races down here, take the hit for a couple years, and hopefully slowly gain traction.

The good news is that there’s been a slow increase in gravity venues down here over the past few years, so there seem to be more options for southern race locations now than in the past.  How to have races put on down here though without teams and riders is a big chicken & the egg question.