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  1. #1
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    Dragon's Back race report (long)

    Race: The Dragon's Back
    Location: North Mountain, Southwest Virginia - near Roanoke
    My hometown: Charlottesville, VA 2.5 hours northeast of the race

    This post is brought to you by the letter D.

    D is for downpour. D is for dirty. D is for downright scary downhill. D is for Dragon. Unfortuneately, D is also for DNF.

    The forecast was bleak. I didn't really feel like climbing a mountain in pouring rain and 40 degree temps. However, I'd already paid my money to race and I had scheduled the time in advance. The last thing I ever want to do is regret not going on a road trip based on a weather forecast. Even when that forecast is, shall we say, sub optimal.

    So, after fueling body and truck I headed south into the storm. I had studied the radar all morning and was pretty convinced that North Mountain, the actual Dragon's back was shielding the small valley from the squalls and forcing the clouds around instead of over. As I got farther from home and the rain fell harder I was less and less convinced I had made the right bet. I almosted bagged it even before I got to Rt. 311 but I decided I had come this far I should at least go to the trail head and see if my prediction would hold true.

    Once I got to the forest road leading to the staging area I knew I had made the right decision not to bag it. The road is prefaced with one of my favorite signs:

    "Road not suitable for passanger vehicles."

    This was going to be fun. I kept my trusty Rodeo in 2WD since the going wasn't all that bad. Seven miles later after slipsliding through puddles, potholes and good 'ole Virginia clay I found a spot to park, pulled on my boots and hiked to the registration table. I had registered for Vet Sport but since this was only my third ever MTB race I was a little concerned with the distance. I agonized over which class to race in for weeks. Two years ago I entered my first MTB race at the Wednesdays at Wakefield series in Annandale, VA. I was really stoked to do a series since I love the idea of accumulating points and having something to work for in each race. Plus if you have a bad day there are more races to stage a comeback. I entered in the beginner category since I hadn't been on my mountain bike in years. I had been spending all my time on the road and was clawing my way through my first year of road racing. Some of my old teammates were talking the W @ W series so I thought I would give it a try. I placed 14th in the first race and actually made the podium in the second with a third place finish. I was thrilled. Then my rear shock broke before the third race and my hopes of glory were sent to California with my Fox shock.

    This morning I didn't have to worry about my shock. I was riding a new bike that is slowling being dialed in. However, I suffered a mental mechanical before the race even started. I think pride overshadowed common sense today. After being passed by everyone in my class, all but two of the younger sports and finally being caught by one of the two beginners that showed up I realized that this wasn't so much fun anymore.

    The beginner asked, "what class are you in?"

    "The wrong one", I replied.

    "Why did you enter sport?" he enquired.

    "Pride, I guess", I mused.

    I can't remember much else since we were still climbing there just wasn't enough blood to go around. The race began with about a mile of forest road. It was up and down, mostly up though. When we entered the single track climb the smooth clay surface of the forest road was a distant memory. The climb is chock full of rocks and steep. I grabbed for my granny gear and began the slog. The stock Spesh Fast Track tires held pretty well all things considered. I think I was running around 40 psi.

    The climb was just never let up and even though I cleaned one or two of the switch backs you had to dismount for all the rest. I walked a lot. Too much. But, there just wasn't much traction to be had and I wasn't able to get my legs around even the smallest gear to give it enough gas to spin through the turns. Once we actually gained the ridge we were rewarded with yet more climbing. There were just more leaves on the ridge. The weather was holding though and it was actually quite pleasent riding weather. Not too hot and not too cold. I guess I dressed accordingly today.

    Once the downhill began I was able to pick up a couple of riders. The top part of the descent was hairy. Just really steep. Once it leveled off a little it was a super fun ride down to the bottom. Then came the river. I honestly think we were riding up a small creek bed. The water was 8-10" deep sometimes. It was laughable really. The water ride only lasted about a mile or so and then it was back to the forest road. There was a good bit of descending on the return and it was a blast. There were some small grunts but all in all it was a fun run back. Maybe because I knew that my race was over I was able to enjoy the scenery a little more. I was pretty much spent anyway due to my lack of training so far this year and I knew that it just wouldn't be smart to try and grind up the mountain again. The climb didn't scare me as much as the descent. I just didn't want to tank it over the cliff. So with a little time on my hands to do some thinking I pondered my descision to enter the sport cat.

    When you don't have anything to race for it's hard to keep yourself motivated. I had read a lot about sandbaggers and I think that's what prompted me to enter the sport class vs. beginner. I didn't want to show up in my team kit and crush the beginners by five minutes. Yeah, right. That wasn't going to happen but I though I would look like a jerk if it did. I have come to realize that just because you join a team and have a fancy jersey doesn't mean shizzle if you don't put in any training time and have the legs to back it up. I got my rear derailleur handed to me today and I sucked up the DNF. I think I felt that DNF'ing in sport would be better then taking first in the beginner class. Well, I don't know if I would have taken first today. Maybe if I had started in beginner class I would have faught harder knowing I had a chance at victory. Is that what racing is all about though? Victory?

    Yes and no. I love the feeling of just being out there and being part of the show. I love pre race ritual and the jitters and the feeling of relief and satisfaction after you cross the finishline. I love that beer at the end of the day while replaying the race in my head. Yet, if there is no competition then there is no race. If there is no race then there is no chance of success or testing yourself against your peers. If you know, from the outset that you have no chance in Haties of winning or even being competative what's the point?

    Right now I can't be competative in sport class. I just don't have the legs or the skills yet. I think I was too worried about what other people were going to think about me based on what class I chose to race in and that was a mistake. I'm pretty sure I knew I should have been in the beginner class but I didn't want to admit it. Why? Who knows. Maybe it's because we always want to think that we are better then we really are. I'm a very accomplished skier and the word novice and beginner has a bad connotation for me. But that's silly. Everyone has to start somewhere. I've just been skiing so long I can't remember what it feels like to be on the other end of the spectrum.

    I have made a promise to myself to spend as few races in the beginner class as possible though. But, for right now, that's were I am. The bottom line is that it's fun and there is more then enough challenge for me but there is also the possibility of glory. Yeah, I know that it's amature racing at the lowest level but we all like to taste success once in a while. If I know that there is a chance I can win I will push it that much harder on the climb. I won't give in to pain in my legs so easily. I'll dig deeper into that proverbial suitcase of courage. I have come to terms with racing as a beginner this spring. I will use this season to hone my skills and build my endurance. I hate reading the course descriptions and then having to settle for the shortened beginners course but so be it. It will give me incentive to train harder and next year I'll be back to have another crack at the Dragon. Come next year, I'll be bringing a bigger sword.

    Thanks for reading,

    Sean

  2. #2
    EGGROLL!!!
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    Good write up, sounds like some tough conditions. I know that in pretty much every race I've entered I've thought about quitting, so I know what you were thinking. Keep riding, and you'll be back where you want!

  3. #3
    No no...the OTHER LA.
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    Not necessarily against my better judgement, but after careful consideration and input from been-there-done-that racers, I chose to start my racing career (hah) in Sport class last year. Three races and just at the edge of the lower 25% ranking, I don't regret sticking there at all. It does suck to watch the first portion of your class pedal away, never to be seen again. But, it establishes a baseline; a known result that you can then compete against. This then moves the object from "you against them" to "you against yourself". Funny, when you become your main opponent, the race all in a sudden becomes more fun. Gone is the angst over dealing with the other riders. It just becomes an internal battle to outperform your time from last year, even the last race. That's where I'm at. At my first race of 2007 next Sunday I'm sure I'll be too nervous. But, I suspect I'll be lest nervous than last year, which should equal a more enjoyable race. Plus, I'll be really looking forward to the post-race beer.

    Great write up, BTW!

  4. #4
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    Just showing up was good

    Just showing up to that race is a feather in the cap.

    That place is just plain hard and the weather conditions made it a different world. North Mountain historically does pretty well in wet conditions and no one anticipated how bad it actually was going to be.

    The course in general is pretty hard for new sport riders and the conditions on the ridge this weekend made it even tougher. I felt like a small child on the ridge and the downhills. Everyone I talked to including the top experts expressed similar sentiments.

    Don't feel bad in any way. There is no way to be prepared for Dragon's Back and especially in those conditions.

    Results and your competitiveness within your class are always a benchmark that we rely on. But try not to place all your focus on it. Results are completely out of your control because you have no control over who shows up. On a day like this Sunday you can bet that more hardcores are going to be there. On a fair weather day probably a wider range of abilities would have been in your class.

    Find some additional goals that can be quantified such as desired time for a course or a lap, and use that for your motivation.

    The other sport races in VA aren't as bad, though the Douthat sport course is also tough because of the length. The terrain is much more 'rideable' but the climbing is steep and there is lots of it.

    If it helps, I've been fighting the dragon for more than 10 years. Still kicks my ass every time but we keep coming back.

  5. #5
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    Great read. I entered my first race ever in Sport class. The result --DFL-- Like you, I've spent my life on skis/snowboard and just figured that only kids are beginners.

    Having learned my lesson I entered this race the next year as a beginner and won! It felt great, the race tactics played through my head and I realized I had won the race in the first 2 miles. The term sandbag came to mind a time or two, but I figured that it was only my 3rd race ever at that time.

    I raced Sport the next year in my first season of racing. While being a mid-packer in every race, I got a "technical" podium and a bronze medal in the state champs.

  6. #6
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    I can empathize. Last year I entered sport, whereas beginner was where I really needed to be. But I couldn't rationalize driving 2 hours and paying money to only ride 6 miles. So I went sport and realized quickly that the only people that I would pass would be those with mechanical failures.

    In the end, I'm glad I went sport. I did a little better every race, by the end even passing a couple of people. I learned quite a bit about racing and myself.

    This year I'm in masters sport. All this means is that I will finish near the end of the pack, it's just that there won't be as many of them. But I'll tell you I've seen an improvement in my racing already. I think I've really grown as a racer due to the fact that I chose sport last year. I'm more motivated to train, and my expectations are more realistic.

  7. #7
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    Hi all,

    Thanks for the encouragement and I'm glad you guys enjoyed my novella. I needed to get some feedback from folks that had been in similar situations so reading about your experiences helped a lot. After digesting your thoughts and my own in the last 24 hours I think I am still going to stick it out in the Sport class. If I had started in the Beginner Class I think I would be in a different frame of mind. I would have faught hard to stay in front of the other beginners and that would have changed the dynamic for the race for me.

    I should have started my season in beginner, tested the waters in a race or two then moved up if I felt the need. But, I didn't and I can live with that. I semi like the idea of clawing my way from the bottom. There is nowhere to go but up. It will be interesting to see what happens at the next race if it's sunny out and more people show up.

    The next race is in two weeks. I just got word that I will be out of town next weekend so no race on Sunday. That stinks cause it was the series opener for my local C-Ville series but so be it.

    Be on the lookout for the next installment and thanks again for the words of encouragement.

    Cheers,

    Sean

  8. #8
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    Hey Sean, looks like we are in the same boat.

    I raced the meltdown last year in beginners. I placed either 4th or 5th (although a couple top finishers cut off a significant portion of the course, and didn't fess up). On top of that, most of the racers DNF due to getting lost on the course as well. I still felt like I struggled big time regardless. This year, I've dropped another 30lbs. and trained my butt off. I have been worried for weeks over entering beginners and feeling like I was sandbagging. The fact is though, this weekend in my second race ever. I have no racing skills per say and still feel too intimidated to go sport with no real experience. I'm going to do beginners for the Spring Cup @ Poor Farm, and depending on how I do, maybe even for the Meltdown too.

    I consider myself as becoming more of an endurance rider, doing a lot of 30+ mile days all spring here. Training for the SM100, hoping to not kill myself on that ride! So, not a great short track racer, but I'll give it a go.

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