Sunday, September 4, 2011
Race #92: A New Classic
Let us step back in time. Europe, steel frames, handlebar mustaches, goggles, dirt roads with muddy ruts from horse-drawn carts. Throw in some sadomasochistic race promoters and voila, one-day classics are born. Paris-Roubaix, Ronde Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo. I'll never get to race these races. But Andy, Mason and Kyle from Columbus's CapCity have created something treacherous right here in Ohio — a short race compared to the Classics but not short on difficulty. It's called the Frankenbike 50.
The race takes place in Scioto Trails State Park between Chillicothe and Portsmouth. 4,500 feet of the best climbs in Ohio — an abundant crop of Appalachian foothills rise up from the modest Ohio farmland — on gravel forest roads which comprise about half of the race course. Connecting the climbs are some scenic paved roads through valley farms and homesteads. And another twenty percent of the course is what they call "singletrack" but are really horse trails — not the image of beautiful, flowy, groomed mountain bike singletrack that one would love to ride. But what goes up must come down. At the end of each gravel climb there is a section of horse trails that quickly drop back down. Steep, ungroomed trails with loads of humps that prevent erosion. After an extremely harsh winter and wet spring, these trails were covered in down limbs, large rocks from washed out gullies and patches of hoof-pocked mud pits from horseback riders. The race is about 45ish miles long, but Frankenbike 50 sounds better (and when you are done you will be glad there wasn't another 5 miles).
So which bike to ride? Thus the name Frankenbike. A road bike got in the top-10 last year, but the descents were more treacherous this year. A cross bike does well on the gravel and trail, but those downhills almost call for a mountain bike. Cross bikes with disc brakes? Single-speed fully-rigid 29er mountain bike with skinny tire. Almost every iteration you could think of was represented in the top 10 this year.
When I first read the race course description a year ago I knew I had a chance to do well. I felt the combination of climbs and trails might favor my riding style, I do well by maintaining a middle-range of power for long periods of time. Long climbs will dislodge the guys with better bike-handling skills, road sections will wear out the mountain bikers. So I wanted to win. But it's a "Gran FUNdo," one category for all the riders with just one "winner" and the overall goal was just to have fun. So am I a jerk if I wanted to win? Yes, but someone has to right?
This year started with a neutralized roll out to create a community amongst the racers. We could warm up together, keep us safe on public roads and share a few jokes before the first gravel climb separates the pack. In both years of this race, the first climb quickly makes a selection. It's a steady 2 mile climb and once you reach the top there are a bunch of little kicking rollers that make you want to cry. Both years I have made sure to make this selection. This year a large pack stayed together halfway up the climb and I was surprised to see an equal representation of crossers and mountain bikers. And both years one rider has put in a tremendous effort to tear this selection apart and stew us in lactic acid — Trek Store Columbus's Tony Viton is a monster. Last year he was one the front of a group of four (of which I was tailgunning), this year I was in second struggling to keep him within 15 seconds.
We reached the top and began the first technical descent together with a small group of mountain bikers about a minute back. The descent was very treacherous on cross bikes, I was glad I ponied up for the TRP brakes this year. At one point I was going sideways with a leg out and somehow I saved it! That could have been bad. You would be trying to not endo over the water-bars when you would be forced to bunny-hop a tree branch. Meanwhile thorn bushes lined both side to the trail to remind you to stay on course.
Tony's riding was very smooth and once we reached the bottom we looked back to see only one of the mountain bikers made it down but had gained time on us. So we worked together taking pulls although I admit Tony's strong form kept him out in the wind a bit more. And I began to notice a slight lack of pressure in my rear tire. I think that descent had taken a toll on my bike.
Another climb and a descent and the mountain biker had caught up. It was Ben from the Ohio State Cycling Team, and he was clearly a force to be reckoned with. A bond quickly formed and we worked together, chatting between pulls and making sure everyone was okay when the occasional spill happened on the trails. My tire was getting low and I was forced to pull over. I was guessing it was a slow leak so I hit it with some CO2, but it was up to 60 psi. Tony and Ben kept a steady pace up the climb and I chased to catch back up. They even waited about 20 seconds for me at the check point on top of the hill. And alas another white-knuckling technical descent. This time I was surfing down on 60 psi and it felt a bit more like a pogo stick. I lost a little bit of time again and had to work hard to catch back up.
Some of the horse trails featured steep hike-a-bikes. I know they were over 20%, but I have heard GPS computers recording 40%. It's weird to be shouldering your bike walking, and still be out of breath. Ben started to gain an advantage on his mountain bike. And Tony began to feel the effects of the hoof-marks. The trail was so bumpy, where muddy trails had been ridden and now dry resemble something much more akin to the pavé of Paris-Roubaix. Fortunately I have been mountain biking all summer, but I recall riding the trails on my cross bike last spring and feeling the burn in my arms. That along with a death-grip on your cantilever brakes would give anyone a quick case of carpal tunnel. Tony, one of the strongest riders, was worn down by the course.
I passed Tony and was keeping Ben in my sights. After checkpoint 2 Ben had easily gained over a minute. We hit a road section and I thought I could pull him back but I was unable to. My 1x9 was inadequately geared for the steep rollers on the trails, the hike-a-bikes had taken their toll too. I would try to stretch my hamstring and my quad would cramp and vice-versa. All race long I felt like I didn't have a chance. Riding behind strong riders with a leaky back tire. I felt more than ever my chance was slipping away. I refueled hoping to prevent the onslaught of day-ending cramps. As the road eventually tilted upward again I was able to regain contact. Ben and I continued to ride together and this time I made a point to stay on his wheel on the trails.
We hit checkpoint 3 together and Mason was dressed up like a ghoul listening to Misfits and Slayer! Mason said we had a solid lead but warned us of a group of riders charging from behind. Ben and I set out on another long grinding hill together. After about a mile and a half Ben began to slow. I told him I would see him at the bottom, expecting that his sweet 29er would shred the gravel downhills and upcoming trails.
So this is where the sang-froid of racing took over. I knew that my little 1x9 cross bike was no match in a sprint or the final technical down hill. Eventually I lost visual contact with Ben and I put the hammer down. I wanted to win right? Grab the bull by the horns! In my mind I resembled one of my heros of the Classics. Nose to stem, high cadence, crushing every roller. And one last technical descent. I gave it everything I had and in the process flatted the front tire too. I had to ride the last section of singletrack on a flabby tire, every corner feeling like I was in a mud pit. All the while I was assuming Ben was just behind me. I hit the final bit of road and nearly bit it, the flat handled worse on asphalt. Fortunately it was only a few hundred meters to the finish. I did it! I got the win and shaved about 20 minutes off of last year's winning time, but I wouldn't have done this without the strong riding by Tony and Ben.
Now that I race Elite and Expert races, a first place seldom happens and this year I relish each podium. I'm happy to have won such a crazy event. I immediately put on the CapCity jersey that Kyle gave me and watched in amazement as riders came in just behind me. I was surprised not to have seen Ben but another mountain biker come in second. Ben got a flat on that last climb. Mason was right, a group of riders were coming from behind and I was lucky to have held them off. Every rider had a crazy story and many other riders came in with broken spokes and flats. Some riders rarely crashed while other had terrible crashes into the thorn bushes.
It's the second year for the Frankenbike 50. The course was extremely well marked and the neutralized rollout was a wise choice. It was amazing how just 3 volunteers were able to run a 45 mile race!