Appreciate the cheers for the alternative setup, folks in the woods...
Martin Allen Photo

Right Coast Summer

One thing I can count on in this continually changing bike racing landscape is a summertime trip to the homeland for some World Cup racing. It always feels good to step off the plane and feel that thick, warm air, knowing it’s even thicker under the dense forest canopy. Full of oxygen and roots, rain or shine, the conditions are always right as far as I’m concerned. We had each in the last two weeks at World Cup rounds #5 and 6 in Mont St. Anne, Quebec and Windham, NY. Knowing I’ll get to enjoy some time with family and friends in Maine between events is the icing on an already sweet cake. Not Whoopie Pie sweet, more of a mellow, sustainable sweet…

Preparation for the Mont St. Anne race seems to start at another Mount, this one the namesake of Waldo County along Maine’s coast. Sparky keeps raking the trails and Justin keeps riding the hell out of them, the combination of which puts a smile on my face annually. Too bad there are only about a half-dozen people who ever enjoy it. Or, that’s perfect.

The hooligan riding seemed to be good prep for St. Anne. The course there has changed over the years, but it’s always so good. The kind of place I’d never ride a bike without back shocks. Anthem X 29 seemed to let me open it up and have even more fun on the descent to tech zone #1 every lap. Maybe too much fun, as I caught Christoph Sauser mid-race whilst riding quickly through the field. I really wanted to show him this sweet gap jump off the bridge, but instead smacked something and, psssssssst. Game off, briefly, for another snazzy tubular wheel, then, game on. After a couple years of riding like poo at a place that’s always been so good for me there were glimmers of past pace. Then it started raining. Perfect. And I mis-counted laps. Thinking we were on the bell, and that folks weren’t really putting up much of a fight considering the impending finish, I had a Coke and went on a tear with two to go. Oops. And sorta fun. Holding on for the last lap was a touch less fun, but resulted in more slickness and more overtaking, so, result. The actual result wasn’t so flash, 24th is about 5x my best finish in this fine forest, but feeling decent and having fun is un-quantifiable. Nino Schurter also flatted a tubular, hopefully riding like a dick as well, but still was able to out-sprint Jose Antonio Hermida. And Max Plaxton, the most talented guy in the World Cup field without a podium finish, finally got one. Solid work, Max, ‘bout time…

Just another Sunday afternoon in Brownville.

I like bike races and all, but I took the proximity of Quebec to my Dad’s place in Exeter as an opportunity to implement the European exodus model.  Race, hose off, and get the hell outta there in favor of bonus home time.  Lots needed to be done during the week in Maine.  There was massive flooding carnage to inspect in Brownville with the locals.  Aunt Diane made Baked Beans for Craig family dinner.  Mom had some sweet fused glass pieces she’s been learning to create as one of the spoils of her recent retirement.  And it was raining, which meant the opportunity to get a quick run on my favorite local river, which happens to flow past the house on its way to the Atlantic.  Plus some more Mount Waldo riding, in cartoonishly wet conditions.

My burgeoning form now that it’s proper summer only added to my resolve to achieve a lifelong goal at the Windham World Cup.  I’ve got a tattoo that’s only available to one person a year, that of the Singlespeed World Champ.  This tongue-in-cheek event is a far, far cry from the incredible level of competition that defines the modern World Cup, but at the end of the day they’re both mountain bike races.  Over the years I’ve done a fair bit of racing on a singlespeed with folks on normal bikes.  Fast folks.  I’ve always been surprised with the result, which has been victorious more often than not.  But how would my relatively small, domestic sampling compare with the sport’s grandest stage?  There’s only one way to find out…

The Windham course is pretty ideal for a singlespeed, uphill start, consistent climbing with very little flat terrain and a fast, flowing descent. You know, good bike stuff. I’ve also always ridden a hardtail there with good luck. So, this would be my chance, then. Hatching this plan to myself after returning home from La Bresse, I logged onto tightjeansfixie.com and found a magic gear. 32×17. Conversion complete, I set to training like I used to, long rides in the hills with Jimmy on our simple bikes. We wanked on about how riding the SS gives you mystery power in between talking about girls and what we’d have for post-ride lunch. And I started to feel pretty strong.

Not quite strong or fast enough to keep up at the start though. Which I expected, and wasn’t too concerned about. Not to be self-deprecating, but I’ve been far from lighting it up in the first five minutes lately… Fortunately, the last-minute discovery of an even more ambitious gear (34×17) that resulted from, shall we say, manufacturing tolerance drift, meant that I had no choice to ride up to about 40th by the top of the first climb. Sweet, this might just work. My brain was pumped on riding fast and making this happen, finally. Too pumped evidently, as close following of the dust-train (evidently the inches of rain that fell on Maine this week missed the Catskills) resulted in a kind of burly, scary high-speed wreck. First point of impact, shoulder. Second, back and elbows. Dang it. Or something to that effect. A brief pause to wheeze and curse (which I’m sure sounded hilarious) and I was riding gingerly down the hill to fix some things at the pit. Dang it. It took a lap or so to get my wits back about me and by then the momentum was gone, replaced by some solid discomfort. I caught up to the mid-30’s after a few laps and was trying to fake some momentum but it just wouldn’t come. Body-slamming myself was a poor choice from a physiological standpoint…

Appreciate the cheers for the alternative setup, folks in the woods…
Martin Allen Photo

From a mental standpoint, the Singlespeed Challenge was great.  I finally got to do it.  And from the solidly stoked Windham crowd’s reception, folks were into it.  Thanks for the cheers out there, boombox PA crew and everyone else lurking in the woods.  I mightn’t’ve made it up some of those pitches without y’all.  It just might have worked had things gone a little differently.  37th place is OK, but I genuinely thought I could ride in the top 20 on that thing.  Better that I didn’t, as my ability to deliver a decent high-five was questionable.  Or put on my pants…

Just to clarify, I mean absolutely no disrespect to the institution of World Cup racing that’s provided me with an amazing focus and purpose for the last decade. In 2006 I started experimenting with a single front chainring in World Cups. It worked awesome and has ultimately become a very common setup at all levels of XC racing. Doubtful that the proper single will ever be a common sight, but you never know. It’s fun to try things out, just in case… I completely understand (and was sternly told as much after the race) that plenty of people support our Rabobank/Giant Offroad team and they expect a certain level of professionalism at events. I like to take a broad view of what being a professional is, probably broadened by my innate American-ness… There were so many smiling faces out on the course, screaming their heads off for someone who was going out on a limb. Hopefully those impressions last a lifetime, they certainly will for me.

The devil’s advocate would say that, with recently improving form, I could’ve ridden a bike with gears (and maybe even shocks, it got rough out there!) to a respectable finish. Maybe so. Over the last two and a half seasons, since shredding my knee and joining this Rabobank team, I’ve had a continual inability to do just that, regardless of how hard I work. There’s always something. This continual disappointment has burrowed deep into my brain and, as a coping mechanism, I’ve stopped considering podium finishes as a realistic option. In some way, the one-gear challenge was a way to have World Cup racing be a kind of unknown again. A personal challenge. And it was…

Now I know. It can be done. But it’s probably not the future. I saw Burry Stander, who’s riding a single chainring and always pushing the limits of equipment, out on the course before the race, he’d heard of my plan and asked what the hell I was thinking. I told him it was an experiment, a make or break one. He responded that it’d probably break me. He went on to win in Windham. Smart guy. Pretty awesome that our US Olympians all slayed it on Saturday. Todd Wells rocked it in 4th, his best result ever, Sam Schultz was only a minute off the podium in 10th. Damn, fellas, glad you’re in shape and looking on track to make us proud. Georgia Gould was even more agonizingly close to the Win than last week, a puncture in the last kilometer resulted in her running toward the line while Catherine Pendrel and Katerina Nash sprinted around her. Save it for London, Georgia. Lea Davison finally punched her podium ticket as well, coming home in 5th in front of her extraordinarily stoked family. Warms the heart, Nugget.

I’m glad the little mountain community of Windham was able to pull together after the destruction of Hurricane Irene last August to not only rebuild but put on their third installment of a great event. The little details like a “ride the pond” challenge on Thursday evening and solid concerts Saturday after dark really tie together our traveling MTB circus. Hats off to Nick, Lori and the rest of the crew for making it happen and to the UCI for letting them start us on the downtown bridge that washed downstream ten months before we stood on it.

I heart the East Coast racing. That said, I might not be here, for this at least, next year…

Stevie Wonder wave, Kenduskeag Steam, Bangor Maine.

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