UCI Windham World Cup Mountain Bike Race: Taking the Kids

October 24th, 2014

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me at SeanHess.com or on Facebook.

This summer I took my kids up to see the UCI World Cup races at Windham. I always wanted to see the World Cup, but I was always competing as an amateur every summer and never had time to make the trip.

I raced back at the inaugural Windham East Coast Nationals back in 2008 (?) when it was an NMBS series race. Geoff Kabush crashed on the big rock near the end, which has since been named “Kabush Falls.” Geoff raced in this 2014 version, now UCI, but I don’t think we included any footage of him.

If you’ve never ridden Windham you need to get up there. It’s short and fast, very challenging but smooth and not terribly technical. Just a fun place to ride. We hope to get back again in 2015 and ride the amateur race before the World Cup, which we didn’t have a chance to do.

Just an FYI, my daughter (featured in the video below) did 75% of the camera work and editing on Adobe Premier Pro. Not bad for a 3rd grader.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.

Race Like It’s Your Last Race

August 26th, 2014

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

Above: I’m shown a few times in this video but the best is near the 7:00 mark, wearing optic yellow, riding then dismounting to cross a stream.

Last year’s Swank 65 in the Pisgah was my last race. Not my last ride, nor the last time I would enter a race, but … my last race.

My body was probably in as good a shape as it had ever been. But after 8 years in the saddle as a cat-2 it was getting old and I couldn’t motivate myself to train on the same roads for another season.

Life Has a Way of Changing Things Around When You Are Busy Making Plans

When I raced the first time, back at Razorback in Reddick, Florida, in 2006, I wasn’t even a dad. Now I’m the father of two: an 8-year old and a 4-year old. As their school schedules and after-school schedules came to the fore life really became about them.

On the practical side, shepherding around two kids didn’t leave much time to train. Training windows were getting shoved into smaller and tighter windows until it became nearly impossible to find any time at all.

And on the other side it was time to set my dreams and desires for my kids’ dreams and desires.

So I let my coach know I was hanging them up.

Race Like It’s Your Last Race

You here that old axiom a lot, “Race like it’s your last race!”

But I never raced like it was my last race.  I always raced like I didn’t want to to get cut, like if I didn’t make Xth place I wouldn’t ever get to race again.

I raced every race like I had to qualify for nationals. Too fast, too loose, increasingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Every race was tunnel vision. I only saw what was in front of me.

During the Sun Valley Nationals one year I took the gondola up to the top of the hill to practice for the Super D. I’d already ridden the course a few times as a cross country racer and I couldn’t reconcile it.

I didn’t remember the drop offs, the rails, the ledges. I didn’t remember the incredible beauty of the trees.

What I remembered were corners and hucks, the loose dirt and cutting shale at the top, hills and the rock wall. The other details? The sky was blue, the woods brown and green.

“How is this possible,” I thought to myself, “that I didn’t notice this? It’s so beautiful…”

And then I raced my last race, and it was a revelation.

Riding In Beauty

The Swank 65 hosts an open field of 200 riders. To tell the truth, probably only 20 of the riders were actually racing. My coach, Tristan Cowie, won it the year before (2012) and wasn’t competing this year because he was competing in a national level cyclocross race. The riders actually racing for the title in the 2013 version were a who’s who of local and national mountain bike ringers.

The rest of us, we were riders only for this race and we had no apologies at all.

And I rode, and I watched my breathing and my pedal stroke. I stopped to drop my saddle before I bombed the downhills, and then I stopped again to raise it for the climbs. I was blown away staring up at Looking Glass rock and reveling in the slow climb past it, just so I could look at it over and over again.

I took every second to enjoy the incredible beauty around me. I soaked it in. I saw each and every tree. I noticed the grade, the variations. I noticed the trail and how it romped along through the forest like the leaps and bound of a playful dog.

I was riding in beauty. Finally, and finally.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.


Teaching a Kid to Mountain Bike: Short Steep Hills

August 4th, 2014

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

I don’t remember how I learned to climb hills when I was a kid. It was probably just me and my buddies charging the random hill to see if we could get to the top of it.

We were a motley collection of bikes: Huffy bmx’s with mag wheels, junk bikes, and Schwinn Varsity 10-speeds. Getting up a hill was a lot of trial and error, it was not a sure thing, and most likely we went until we got hurt or were exhausted (but still stoked with the adrenaline from making it up once or twice).

I took my 8-year old daughter to the Tsali trails near Bryson City, NC, recently with the goal of having her complete the children’s race course a few times. But I forgot what a simple ordeal it is learning to climb.

Gearing, pedal stroke, speed, and what the heck do you do when the bike starts to wander?

The children’s race course starts from the parking lot, climbs the gravel road to the traditional start at the horse parking area, takes a right up a small hill above the parking area then speeds down to the traditional finish area.

The small hill isn’t bad (though it seems an awful grind after you’ve put in 18 or 30 miles of racing), but my daughter and I spent about an hour working on it.

She did make it (see the video below), but it took awhile, and then we still had to get up to the ridge and go down.

I think the mistake I made was having her geared too low.

I thought that if she was in a really light gear she would be able to just scoot up the hill and focus on riding. But because the terrain was uneven and a little washed out, the bike wandered, she freaked out, lost her pedal stroke and fell over.

What I figured out is what all riders figure out eventually: a bigger gear and speed are your friends over the rough stuff.

I had her go up a chain ring, follow me around in a big loop then charge the hill at full speed. The bike still wandered, but she made it (with a tiny bit of help).

So if you are teaching you’re little one, go big first on the gear and speed when it comes to hills.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.

Teaching a Kid To Ride a Ladder on a Mountain Bike

June 3rd, 2014

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

Since I retired from full time racing and took a much needed mental break, I’ve been jonesing to get back on the trails again.

If I want to keep riding (and keep riding the really gnarly trails I got used to as a racer) I have to get my kids involved. Thankfully, my daughter seems to really enjoy mountain biking.

Last week we went out to the Santos Trails near Ocala, Florida, and worked on a progressive ladder she rode last time we were out. This is the first time she rode it from start to finish by pedaling in from the trail.

So much of mountain biking is mental, of proving to yourself that what your eyes are telling you is impossible is actually possible and quite easy (and fun).

The ladder here is nice because it is so big and wide, and there’s lots of room. We started by rolling off the first hill, then the second, then the third, then pedaling in. The ladder is really just the same hill three times. Once she knew she could master the first hill the rest was easy. Here’s the video below:

You can find this ladder by parking at the main Santos trail head and taking the yellow trails to the right. The ladder is before you get to Blue Highway and (I believe) after the 2nd Marshmallow intersection.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.

Amelia Earhart Park: Taking a Kid Riding for the First Time

January 10th, 2014

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

First time rider

First time rider

I took my 7-year old daughter out mountain biking for the first time, and by a curious turn of events it turned out to be at Amelia Earhart Park in Hialeah, Florida.

The curious turn of events was that my daughter got sick the day we were planning to go to Santos in Ocala, Florida, (much, much closer to home) and also that we just happened to be in Miami for the weekend.

It all worked out and Amelia Earhart turned out to be perfect.

Not So Sure About Amelia

We came in off I-95 and took 9 and 916 in through Opa Locka, and baby was I ready to turn that car around.

It is a heavily industrialized area we drove through, and many of the homes that fronted the street had iron fences, tall chain link fences, barbed wire and even concertina wire in one case.

So I’m thinking that this isn’t going to be a safe place to park a car or take a kid mountain biking.

But when we got to the park it was really nice. There were lots of families with kids in the playground and petting zoo section of the park (yes, they have a petting zoo). And the mountain bike section of the park had a good mix of riders and first timers.

The Trail

Like most trail systems, Amelia had beginner, intermediate, and advanced trails.

Since I was taking my daughter out for the first time we stuck to the beginner trails.

That’s the trade off when you take kids or any first timer: No rough stuff. Better not to ride at all than to put someone on trails they aren’t ready for (and ruin the sport for them).

The beginner trails were what I would call “advanced beginner” with some short drops into bermed corners, but that was a good thing. It gave her a taste of future things. She also rode her first straight drop, white knuckled and with her feet frozen on the pedals, but she rode it and finished it.

I showed her how to walk through a feature the first time if you’re not sure about it, technique for looking through a corner, and gave her plenty of encouragement. She really started to get the hang of it.

We accidentally ended up on an intermediate trail through the swamp (lots of hairpin turns and small roots) which was challenging for her. She was riding a department store bike with a gigantic gear which made it hard to keep momentum.

But she really loved it, which was gratifying and a bit surprising.

There were signs up marking the trail for the next weekend’s Goneriding Cocunut Cup race, too, so it made her feel like she was on a real race course.

An Early Finish (or) The Difference Between Department Store Bikes, a.k.a. “Junk Bikes,” and “Real Bikes.”

My little girl’s bike broke down about three quarters of the way through the beginner trail system.

Her chain kept falling off, and it kept falling off because it was a lousy bike.

Basically, due to chain length, the rear wheel wasn’t snug with the frame. So whenever she put any extra torque on the wheel (like you do in mountain biking) it inevitably pulled the wheel forward on the chain side of the bike. This put the single gear (did I mention she was riding single speed…whoa!) out of alignment, so that when she backpedaled to brake the chain would fall off and then freeze the pedals.

She was getting so frustrated. We ended up just half-walking, half-riding back to the car.

It wasn’t anything a 15mm wrench wouldn’t fix, but I left my full tool kit at home. Even if I went to Home Depot and got another wrench, I figured it would probably happen again as we were riding beginner trails, which (should be_ relatively easy on a drive train.

So this is the real difference between the purpose-built bikes you find in bike stores and the bikes you can buy in Wal Mart. The purpose-built bikes can handle the terrain, and because they have derailleurs, torque and chain length aren’t issues. Neither is gear size: real bikes are geared correctly for use.

I bought the girl a junk bike because they run about a third the cost of a real bike and I wasn’t sure if she would dig real mountain biking. Now I know.

The upshot to all this was that I had to nix plans to check out the trails at Oleta State Park and Virginia Key, also in Miami.

But as we already had the hotel room booked for a whole ‘nother day, we found other things to do.

There’s a lot to do in Miami if you’ve never been there. If you have kids, check out Billy Bagg State Park on Key Biscayne or Pinecrest Gardens in Pinecrest. Both were great.

And next time we’ll be back with better bikes.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.


Bouncing Off the Walls: Taking the Kids to Mountain Bike Nationals

October 28th, 2013

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

Sean Hess and Kids at 2013 Mountain Bike Nationals at Bear Creek, near Macungie, Pennsylvania

Me and the Critters after the Super D

The Bear At Bear Creek

The 2013 US Nationals Course (near Allentown, PA) this summer was a beater. I raced as a Cat-2.

The downhill sections were an upper body workout. If you raced the Granby-Sol Vista Nationals a few years back it was a bit like that: no time for rest on the descent.

Rock garden after rock garden with narrow trails leading to buttonhook turns and, guess what, more rock gardens.

Having kids stuck in a 10×10 hotel room was even more challenging, but I’ll get to that later.

Being from Florida, the fact that the races took place in 110-degree heat was about the only thing that went right.

Carnage on the Course: The Cat-2 XC

Something like 15% of the cross country Cat-3s DNF’d in the morning cross country races. Lots of broken bikes and injuries I heard, and I would see two riders hurt pretty badly in the afternoon race that I was in.

I went up the hill pretty fast and made it a point to drink most of my water. The trouble was, I wasn’t expecting such a long slog down the other side. I couldn’t rest enough on the downhill and I faded, badly.

My mistake in practice was that I worked the rock gardens slowly, taking time to learn some of the lines (all well and good). The trouble was, I didn’t run the downhill fast like I would in the race. In the race it felt like one continuous rock garden, and I had no idea it would beat me up so much, or that there would be so little time to rest or drink.

The switchbacks were generally clean, but the intermediate changes and slight directional shifts were what caught me. I would clear a really tough section only to clip a pedal and go down or take a turn to hot and go off the course. It was a really hard course to find rhythm on with very little practice.

The Super D That Wasn’t So Super

The Super D was held on sections of the cross country course, but in the reverse direction. The racing sections were only open for practice after dinner and before sunset, which was a pain.

The first night there was lightning in the area so the lifts weren’t running. That meant three climbs up the mountain…but it was all good. I’m one of those rare types that likes climbing hills. It was relaxing. The only negative? My last practice run was nearly in the dark.

The second night I got one trip up on the lift before they shut it down again (lightning in the area again), so up I climbed one more time.

I was fresh for the climb up but had a stupid crash coming down. I went over and into some rocks and gashed myself up pretty bad. But I finished the run down and it was all good.

Race morning the lifts were running. I was trying to contain that feeling of dread waiting for the start mixed with the elation to be racing  that is (more or less) the prelude to my every race.


I threw my chain about 10 feet onto the course…

I have a bad habit of throwing chains on Super Ds.

I think it’s because I start out from a standing start in a low gear (I must backpedal a bit before I start, which can drop a chain in low gear).

Lesson learned…practice the way the race starts, from a standing position.

The chain throw also threw my focus. My legs were tired too.

Lesson two for the day: give yourself at least 24 hours of rest between climbing sessions or between climbing and racing.

At practice I felt fresh because I had 24 hours rest between the practice sessions, but only 12 hours rest between practice and race. Factoring in fatigue from the crash and prerace jitters, it was a bad combination.

I rode OK in some spots, not OK in others. My practices the first night were all superior to my race performance.

When I got to the bottom I realized my front fork was locked in place and the dial control for it had been blasted off.

Normally I notice when my front fork is locked, but the course was so rough it never occurred to me that I was racing on a rigid fork.

Did it happen during the crash the night before or when I came off during the race? I have no idea.

Lesson three: check your front fork after practice.

I’ve been racing for eight full seasons now. I’m about effing done with the “lessons.”

Taking the Monsters to a Mountain Bike Race

I love having my kids at races.

Most of the time they love coming to mountain bike races.

They don’t get to come a lot because the weekend races mean really long drives, early wake ups for the race, and then a long drive back.

I’m not around to hang out with them at the venue (I’m either racing, practicing, or resting). Plus they don’t get to see much actual racing.

My wife ends up trying to entertain the kids long enough to see me start and then find a place for them during the race.

But they usually go to Nationals because we spend a few days in the same spot and there’s usually plenty to do.

So We’re Living Here In Allentown

This year was really a different locale for a mountain bike national: Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Kudos to getting it back on the east coast. But Allentown was not a great National.

This is not a knock on Allentown. The people were as friendly as I can ever remember anywhere, and all the time. And there was a lot to do.

I took the kids to the Crayola Experience and the farmer’s market in Easton. We went to the Blueberry Festival in Bethlehem. And we let the kids run at some local parks.

But we had to drive everywhere.

Accommodations at the actual venue were limited. That meant a 20-minute drive from the hotel, each way.

The closest accommodations available were typical interstate hotels. There were a lot of racers in those rooms at the Comfort Inn and adjoining hotels near the I-78 exit in Trexlertown.

At Nationals I’ve attended in previous years (Sun Valley, Mount Snow, and Granby-Sol Vista), there were always plenty of hotels around the venue that weren’t necessarily part of the venue. You could ride your bike to practice, there might be hiking trails out the back door, and if you had to drive anywhere it was generally only 5 minutes.

There was lots for the kids to do, it was easy for my wife to take them on a walk or go out exploring, and she didn’t need the car.

But back to Allentown: there wasn’t a whole lot to do at the Bear Creek venue. The kids ended up picking wildflowers when I was practicing the XC…fun but you can’t do it for four days.

When I went over for Super D practice in the evenings, they didn’t go along. That meant I had the car for an extended period.

While I was gone my kids were losing their mind stuck in that room at the Comfort Inn. They were bouncing off the walls. My wife’s eyes could have burned holes through my skull when I got back.

So I’m the dad, and that means I have to manage the kids.

Not just then but on the trip up, too, and when I’m not practicing.

Because I have no place to let them run (say in a backyard playground), I have to drive them to a playground and pay really close attention. Which means I’m not really resting.

Am I Bitching Or Just Observing?

I’m not really bitching. Being a parent is much more important than anything else I do.

Having the kids bottled up in an Interstate hotel was not a factor I was considering while preparing for Nationals this year.

I didn’t realize how much more active parenting I would have to do this year as opposed to past years.

The kids were rambunctious because they were cooped up; that is normal. As such I used a lot more energy parenting and I got a lot less rest.

I was also a bit distracted because I knew my wife was coping with the same and I wanted her to have a fun time (or at least not a bad time).

And so it went!

Lesson four: consider the amount of time you’ll be parenting at a race, and consider the accommodations.

What did I write earlier?

I’ve been racing for eight full seasons now. I’m about effing done with the “lessons.”


See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.

Riding the Rock Wall at Mala Compra

July 9th, 2013

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

I live about 20 minutes from Mala Compra and never heard of it until a guy at the bike shop told me about it a month ago.

It’s a short trail, but it’s a great trail. It’s really buff, and its got a legit black diamond section called Cloud 9, with a legit double-black feature called the Rock Wall.

Mala Compra is located off A1A, just across the street from Bing’s Landing Park (where there is plenty of parking), a bit north of the Palm Coast bridge on the beach side of Palm Coast, Florida.

Here’s a video of the Rock Wall, showing drops from the middle and the top, with a walk thru at the end.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.

Great Wrecks Are Like Great Sex: Always Unexpected. Bump N Grind XIX at Oak Mountain Recap

June 27th, 2013

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

Our Lady of Fatima and the Birmingham Barons

I went looking for Our Lady of Fatima and found the Birmingham Barons ballpark instead. Either God was trying to give me a break after a tough day in the saddle or the devil was trying to tempt me. I wasn’t sure which.

But I was a good Catholic, resisted the tempations of hot dogs and cracker jacks, and found my way to the church 20 minutes late. I was a late visitor so they made me stand up and introduce myself.

In the Chop Suey Inn after church (waiting for my bacon fried rice) I was watching the NHL playoffs while texting The Most Interesting Man In The World. I tell him that I don’t watch the NHL much, but when I do I never root for Pittsburgh.

A big thunderstorm rolls in while I’m sitting there, soaking the City of Birmingham and resulting in a rain delay at the ballpark downtown. I guess the moral is “always go to church.” It kept me dry and safe, and strengthened my faith in God.

The Most Interesting Man texts back and asks how my day went. I tell him about the Super D I just raced at Bump N Grind.

He texts back, “I race to win. But when I crash I prefer it to be memorable.”

Well, the Super D certainly was memorable.

Now go buy some Dos Equis.

Now go buy some Dos Equis.

The Super D at Bump N Grind XIX: Just Where The Hell is The Start Line Anyway?

I was picking up my race number and the lady asked if I knew where the Super D start was. Making a vague motion with my hand I said something like “Way at the top of the hill by the gate.” Which is where she thought it was too.

Thirty minutes before the race starts I throw a bottle in the cage and roll out. I head for the course, knowing I have plenty of time to get a practice run in because the pros and experts will start before I do.

The gate at the fire road was the published Super D start. So as I roll past the gate and onto the road I’m thinking, “They moved it onto the fire road a bit so we don’t have to stage on the paved road. That’s cool.”

Approximatley 1.5 miles down the fire road I am still pedaling. They did stage it on the fire road…way down the fire road, past the entrance to the singletrack.

Which leads to an interesting problem: I can’t practice.

The fire road is the only way on or off of the course. The fire road is also PART of the race course. I can’t practice the downhill section and return in time because the race will already be underway.

Well, shit.

Other riders trickle in past the start time. The race starts late. Everyone else thought the race started at the gate too.

I sit up there at the start and wonder why the hell I was so pumped about driving all this way to just to compete in a race that will only take seven or eight minutes.

I was tuckered out. The day before I chaperoned my daughter’s first-grade field day. I missed my kids.

“I’m 43 years old, why am I doing this?” I asked myself.

I got going from St. Augustine, Florida, about noon and melted in the heat driving up through central Alabama. It was 98 degrees in Dothan, Alabama, where I had dinner, and it was still May.

At least I had a bottle.

Most of the riders waiting to start got sucked into the same trap I did…thought they were going to practice and ended up sitting.

Short Track Snafu

There was some discussion going on about the short track race earlier in the day.

Some riders said they were told there was “one lap to go” when there were actually several laps to go.

Some riders said they were told they had “one lap to go”…several times.

One rider said he was told that he was “done,” so he took a lap for a recovery spin. When he came back through they told him he still had “one lap to go.”

Roadies go apeshit about things like this but mountain bikers are more philosophical.

The consensus was that it was an on-purpose joke by the promoters, just like the old “turn and burn” stunt they pulled the first year that they hosted the short track race.

Several riders venture the opinion that this change in the Super D start location was done on purpose too.

I finally get my turn in the chute. Right away I notice my legs are dead. Usually I am money on big gear sections but either because of running around at the field day or getting melted on the long drive up, I don’t have much speed. I guess it worked out that I didn’t get a practice run.

I enter the singletrack a little earlier than published (another surprise) but it’s all good.

The Tree

There’s a turn just before the trail branches (left to Blood Rock or right to Jeckyl and Hyde). There’s a tree in the apex of that corner.

One year I stopped that tree with my jaw (I went into the corner too hot). Last year I dropped my chain near there shifting gears.

I don’t know what happened this year. All of a sudden my pedal clipped something on the ground and I’m down, right in front of that tree.

The chain came off (of course). I put it back on, and for a second, actually a nanosecond, I stared down that tree. I looked at it flint-faced and steely-eyed.

“How could you?” I said. “How could you? After all we’ve been through?”

Then I took off.

I was distracted, and because I crashed the rider behind me was able to get close enough that I could hear the crowd cheer when he went through Blood Rock.

The cheers were like a shot of adrenaline.

My focus came back and I had a complete and absolute tunnel vision for the course.

I sped downhill insanely fast, driving the pedals hard. My instincts say back off and set up for the corners, but I will the pedals to go faster. And in that moment of clarity I think I discover the true essence of downhill racing.

I enlarge the gap between myself and my pursuer, and at the bottom I’m completely blown.

Tristan Cowie, my coach at CTS and a pro racer, is there at the bottom to greet me. I’m out of breath but I give him a recap of the race.

I keep shaking my right hand out while I’m talking to him.

I’ve got blood all over my right knee and it doesn’t hurt, but my hand hurts.

“You hurt?” Tristan asks.

“I don’t think so, my hand hurts like heck though.”

I think to myself, “Was I gripping the handle bar too hard? Dude, then your hand would hurt all the time. Were there too many big hits on the trail? Dude, you’ve been on this trail a lot and it’s never hurt.”

“Oh!” I say out loud. “I landed on my hand when I wrecked. That’s why it hurts.”

Great Wrecks Are Like Great Sex: Both Should Be Unexpected

I lined up at the start for the Cross Country race bright and early the next morning. For once I timed the warmup perfectly and got to the line 5 minutes before the start, sweating and ready.

I had some mechanicals early and lost the group by the time I got to the dam. But I crawled back into the pack, caught the end of a train and started breezing back through.

That’s when I clipped the tree.

Oooooh. The Super D wreck didn’t hurt, but this wreck hurt.

I was bleeding from both knees and my left arm was a mess from my elbow to my forearm.

I could see the riders I just passed coming up. I looked down and saw the chain was still on. So I sprinted down the trail and did a cyclocross start, hopping onto the saddle.

I didn’t notice that the saddle got cocked to the right when I wrecked.

I landed on my, ahem, chestnuts.

“Well, I am NOT going to survive this,” I thought, as I felt the blood drain from my face.

But somehow the legs kept turning. And after the pain subsided a few minutes later I started crawling back into it.

To be honest, I don’t remember anything after that until I started climbing that big, long hill. Landing on your nuts will do that to you.

Another benefit to landing on my nuts was that it hurt so bad I didn’t notice the pain from the wounds on my body anymore.

And even though the seat I was sitting on was still cocked to the right, but by the grace of God I was climbing well and passing people on that big hill.

I made it to the false flat after the crest and continued to make progress through the group. I passed the Super D start and my legs were much stronger than the night before.

As I entered the singletrack again The Tree left me alone through the corner. Somewhere there is a scoreboard that says “Tree 3, Sean Hess 0,” and I assumed the Tree was satisfied for the time being…

And then came the Blood Rock / Jeckyl and Hyde intersection.

When I registered for the race, the course maps published for the cat-2 showed Jeckyl and Hyde as the finish. I pre-rode the course three weeks earlier based on this information.

But the trail didn’t go through Jeckyl and Hyde, it went through Blood Rock.

It’s probably less than 30 seconds from that intersection to Blood Rock proper. I had to get my mind around it fast.

A series of rocky steps, Blood Rock is actually really easy to do. You just hit the center of each step, roll the wheel over, and hit the next step. At the end you have to make a quick right-left, so it’s critical that you don’t go too fast or you’ll oversteer, lose the line and stall-crash, or go over (the wrong way) the big rock at the end.

So just as I’m about to hit the right-left combo…I swear this is true and actually happened…the guy right behind me yells, “PASSING!!!”

I was perplexed. Downhill world champion Danny Hart couldn’t have passed anyone on that spot. Needless to say, I lost my focus for just the tiniest bit.

My front wheel is down off the rock step. My rear wheel is above on the rock step.

With momentum carrying me forward and the wheel down,  I grab just a bit too much and do the first rear-brake endo in the history of mountain biking, right where that red painted rock is.

I cursed. Riders passed me.

My chain is off.

The Tree, observing from the top of the hill, laughs silently. “4-and-0 a**hole,” it mocks.

At least I have time to straighten the seat.

Soon I am back on the bike and blazing down the hill again.

I start working my way back through the field. I pass a rider in a red kit.

“Uh, are you the guy that crashed at Blood Rock?” the guy asks me sheepishly.

“Yeah, that was me,” I reply.

“Dude I am soooo sorry,” he says.

Oh man, I wanted to kill this guy just a few minutes earlier. But you know, if I was a bit faster I wouldn’t have been in that position. Heck, it’s just racing anyway.

And his apology was sincere. Sincerity counts for a lot.

So I race on, past where the Super D finished and onto some trail I hadn’t seen in years. Again, I based my practices on maps published of the course at registration, so I hadn’t practiced this.

I was essentially racing blind, but I’ve got good course memory so I got through it okay. And it helped that the guy behind me was local. He was calling out “left!” or “stay right over the rock!” on some of the sketchy lines that came up fast.

An Offal Finish

Despite the wrecks, I am pretty sure I was in the upper third of the field at the “1 mile to go” mark.

So when I saw the “1 mile to go” mark I sprinted for the finish. It was an all out, put it all on the line, puke your guts out at the end, sprint.

I‘m thinking there’s maybe four minutes left, tops.

In the back of my mind I remembered there was a short, steep hill used in the short track race that you have to climb and descend right before the finish. I reserve just one iota of energy so I can sprint over that hill.

One mile goes by.

One-and-a-half miles go by.

After two miles of sprinting I was gassed. I had nothing left.

The “1 mile to go” was for the pros.

There were still two or three miles for me to go.

I’d been duped. I was a sucker.

Did I mention they had three different Cross Country courses?

My course was yellow. The pro course was green. I saw the green “1 mile to go” sign for the pros.

Know Your Course

My memory says the pro course was taped off there weren’t any yellow arrows. I think if they would have had the yellow arrows maybe I would have picked up on it, maybe not.

To be fair, I was played out after the downhill sections and it’s a lot to expect a tired rider to go “Oh, that’s the GREEN one mile to go, not the YELLOW one mile to go.”

The spectators who were at the junction were yelling “You’re almost there!” I took that as social proof. The spectators didn’t know any better, either.

And in past years, at that point it really was just a mile to the finish. So I was using a bit of course memory there as well.

My first thought after running out of gas was, “This is deliberate, this was a trick. Like at the end of the short track race.”

I told Tristan about it and he was unsympathetic. “You have to know your course,” he said.

And he was right.

At least I was in a position to sprint and attack at the end.

Somehow, even though it seemed like Half of The Entire Mountain Bike Riding World Passed Me as I did a recovery spin on the last few miles to the finish, I still finished in 9th place.

I usually hang out after Bump N Grind, but I was so disgusted after the race I just threw the bike in the car and left.

A Better Finish, A Better Course Is Needed

Having three courses is just waaaaaay too confusing. They found that out at the Granby National Championships back in 2009.

Here’s my solution:

Have a single, unified course. Everybody goes the same direction on each section.

If you need to add distance, do it as a prologue.

In the pro race at Bump N Grind XIX, for example, the pros started up the paved road and entered the singletrack (climbing) Jeckyl and Hyde.

For Bump N Grind XX next year have the non-pro categories go up the paved road and enter the singletrack opposite Jeckyl and Hyde. The prologue section starts there at Rattlesnake, crosses the wood bridge entering the Lakeside trail, does the full red course, with the finish bypassing Rattlesnake and everyone using the pro “1 mile to go” section.

If they want to shorten it up for the cat-3s, just cut out Rattlesnake in the prologue and have them take the pavement directly to the wood bridge and Lakeside.

My Point Is This

First something positive:

Staging and doing the logistics for Bump N Grind must be a massive undertaking. Mistakes and misfires are just part of the game and should be expected. If you’re not trying new things and making mistakes, you aren’t trying hard enough.

AND, the volunteers at Bump N Grind are always great and everyone is so friendly.

Especially the volunteers who staff the neutral water station at the bridge every year, and the food station at the finish. There is a special place in Heaven reserved for them.

Now the beetch:

At 43-years old, preriding Oak Mountain the day before the Cross Country race and on the same day as the Super D, and all this after a 519-mile drive, doesn’t leave much time to recover.

I’m sure riders who either have a long drives or can’t get up until later Saturday are in a similar situation. I would also say this is a situation somewhat unique to long courses like Oak Mountain.

In a situation like this I have to pick and choose which sections I can preride.

I depended on those published maps of the course to practice, and they changed. And I misread the signage on the course itself, possibly sprinting myself off the podium.

If I were more attentive, or if I checked the course, or if checked the BUMP site on facebook, I may have picked up on it. And I didn’t ask any questions about the course at packet pick up either.

So everything negative that happened in the race is my fault, and I have to own it.

But please, as a rider, don’t put me in a situation where I have to be THAT attentive at the end of a race.

I’m all tunnel vision and exhaustion at that point…heck everyone is. If there’s even a chance a “1 mile to go” sign might be confusing, just leave it out. Or put “PRO finish 1 mile.”

And if there’s even a chance the course might change before the date, don’t publish any maps.

And if you do publish maps and have to change it, let everyone know at pickup. Courses change all the time because of weather and other reasons. Riders understand that.

They won’t even be upset. They’ll just say, “I better preride that part.” Sure, there’s always one guy who is upset about everything, but he’ll complain anyway so just ignore him.

Gosh I hope I’m not that guy! :-)

I think in this case the pro start times put the promoters in a situation where you might have had the tail end of the cat-2s descending Jeckyl at the same time the pros were heading up it. So a course change was necessary. It just wasn’t communicated.

A unified course would have helped that.

BUMP knows right now what trails it has in play for next year. It is unlikely that any new trail not already opened will be race ready by then. Why not decide on a course right now?

And if you do have a new section of trail coming online within the next year, why not feature it as an off-raod time trial instead of throwing it right into the race mix?

Look, I not only raced but I prerode the course a few weeks earlier. I made two trips to Brimingham / Pelham / Hoover in 2013 and I’ve come back every year since 2006.

I eat in your restaurants, I shop in your stores, and I’ve worshiped in your churches. About the only thing I haven’t done is enroll my kids in the local school system.

Throw me a bone here. Respect the time, money and effort I put in to travel all that way, that all the riders put in to travel all that way,  just to race the Bump N Grind.

Don’t confuse me, just point me in the right direction and let me go. I’ll do the rest. I’ll make you proud, I promise.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.

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Oak Mountain State Park, Bump N’ Grind XIX cat-2 Pre-Ride

May 24th, 2013

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

I did a pre-ride of the cat-2 course recently at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Alabama, for the upcoming Bump N’ Grind XIX. Here’s what to expect…

Bad decisions make great stories.

Bad decisions make great stories.

This is a fitness course, with an asterisk.

The cat-2 course at Oak Mountain may be the perfect American race course. It offers something for everyone.

The start is classic Eastern USA singletrack. Buff and loose-over-hard to start, it transitions into rooty sections where it seems like the root is always in the apex of the corner. Rarely linear, the course keeps moving side-to-side and up and down, with buttonhooks, short but intense climbs, and sketchy, short descents. When the final sections are wet the mud can shear away from the surface like ice shears away from pavement, dumping a rider who isn’t careful.

The climbing begins up a cobblestoned jeep road with some pretty serious pitches. When you are fresh in practice it requires your attention. When you come in tired off the singletrack from racing, it can be downright soulcrushing. You have to switch from side to side to find the smoothest line, but you still find yourself fighting the cobbles.

In hot years there will be volunteers at the bridge midway up the climb with cups of Gatorade and water…I’ve always elected to have it poured over my head. God bless them!

The final pitch of cobblestones goes straight up. It’s hard climbing but you are at least rewarded with…no more cobblestones. This is called the “Crest of the Climb,” but in reality there’s still plenty of climbing left on what are essentially two longish false flats punctuated by short descents. After the flats there’s a long and straight descent on the rocky jeep road before you’re back into the singletrack.

Jeckyl and Hyde

After the climbing, the reentry to singletrack can be jarring. Immediately you have to navigate rocks, but that’s just an appetizer, because in just a few moments you hit the mother of all rock gardens at the top of Jeckyl and Hyde.

Jeckyl was added to the race in 2012. It starts with a long and impressive succession of rock gardens that wind up and down a narrow countour, before switchbacking and gathering speed into some truly tricky sections. It is an upper body workout.

The difficulty is twofold. The first is finding rhythm and flow as the sections climb through rocks then drop off quickly, rebounding up into short, high-RPM uphills. The second is managing the lines through the last rock gardens, where it can be daunting to find the line through so much gray-colored rock at speed.

I did this upper section fresh in the morning, and while I wasn’t fast I found the lines easily and had some rhythm. Then I rode it at the end of the day when I was exhausted, and I was all over the place, losing a pedal on the final section of rocks and running it out cyclocross style.

And when the rocks are over…you still have a ways to go.

The meat of Jeckyl and Hyde involves descending and climbing around a series of ridges that get progressively smaller as you wind your way to the bottom. It’s a fun ride, built a lot like a pump track.

You can fly on the descents and the trail telegraphs pretty well. There are a few tight turns but no surprises generally. The great thing is that even when you are ascending they give you some energy-saving rhythm.

When you finally get to the bottom there’s a little more singletrack before the finish. You will be tired.

I say this is a “fitness course with an asterisk…”

The riders who are fast and fly on the singletrack will jump out early and if they can get far enough ahead, they may survive until the end. There’s that killer cobblestone hill for the climbers to take that lead back over, and Jeckyl’s gnarly descent for the downhillers to take that lead back if they can just stay close.

So a rider has to be fit to hang on for the entire race and win, and especially to stay in contention in the sections that they are weakest on.

The asterisk is Jeckyl and Hyde, both for its extreme technical section, which will really slow and throw some riders with its upper body workout, and for its length…a rising and falling descent of 4.4 miles…which in the end will just take too much concentration when a rider is at the end of his or her mental rope.

It’s a fun ride. I hope to see you there!

Bad Decisions Make Great Stories: Ride the Lightning

While riding the course I climbed my cross-country bike up the gravel road to the start of Lightning, the purpose-built downhill course at Oak Mountain.

The BUMP folks have a sign at the entry to Lightning with all sorts of warnings to cross country riders, especially experienced cross country riders, about attempting this trail on their cross country bikes. It is an absolutely sufficient warning.

To make a long story short, I crashed, and crashed hard.

I came up to the top of a right, looked down the long straight gulley, then up to a table at the top of the next ridge, and didn’t see anything dangerous.

I let the bike roll and it wasn’t until I was nearly at the top on the other side that I saw the lip…

What you are supposed to do is pump this little lip and the bike will rise gracefully into the air and land on the table.

What happened was that the bike did rise gracefully, the back wheel over my head, my shoulder and helmet smashing on the table underneath, and the bike landing gently on top of me.

It was a classic yard sale with only my glasses staying at the point of impact.

If I were watching I would have laughed my head off. Seriously, it must have been hilarious.

It was a good thing I was wearing my larger camelback and a sleeveless fleece vest over my kit which gave me some extra padding when I landed.

I had a huge scrape on my left shoulder, a new scar to go with the two on my right. What I can’t figure out is…how are those jerseys made so they don’t rip in wrecks even when the skin gets scraped away underneath? Cycling kits are crazy tough.

I rode out the trail with a little more attention to detail.

The thing is, this is how you learn to mountain bike. The crashes are necessary. It teaches your eyes where to look for danger, and it teaches your reflexes how to handle technical features.

The problem wasn’t the bike, or the course. The course, while steep, offers no surprises. It’s a great course.

The problem was me, the rider. I wasn’t expecting the lip. The last time I crashed going uphill was on the Big Gulp section at the old Razorback, where there was a whoop-dee on the upside after a steep and screaming descent (I had a similar result the first time I rode that).

I never crashed on Big Gulp again. Now I know to where to look at Lightning.

The thing that really p*ssed me off as I gingerly worked my way down was, “That was an easy lip, dammit! That would have been fun!”

Oh, and that I broke another helmet.

Dang it, those things are expensive.

You can see the crack if you look closely...

You can see the crack if you look closely…

When a cyclist bleeds.

So my gloves ripped and my hand is bleeding and my first thought is, “No! My session can’t be over!”

My second thought was, “Oh, this is really going to hurt cleaning up!”

I’m not sure which is worse:

The actual pain from the crash…

The anticipation of the pain that I will experience when cleaning up…which had my stomach in knots…

Or, the actual pain of cleaning up, when that anti-bacterial gel is burning through the open wounds…

This time it turned out to be the anticipation. After five minutes of riding the pain went away from my hand…but I was terrified about the burning from cleaning up.

I rode the trail out to the north trailhead, then back to the showers at the campground, inspected the damage and cleaned up, and to my surprise, it wasn’t that bad.

I had a big ding on my forehead and the scrape on my shoulder, and my glasses cut the bridge of my nose, but the soap was gentle to me this time.

I put on a clean kit, got something to eat, packed up the tent and picked up my backup helmet, and headed out for an afternoon ride.

Click Here for a Great Map of Oak Mountain Trails. Click Here to register for the 2013 Bump N’ Grind.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.

With Apologies to Rider 203, Who I Cursed At

April 1st, 2013

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

An illustration of what I might have said.

A photo illustration of what I might have said. Word bubble courtesy of Clker.com

With apologies to rider 203, who I cursed at.

I am in the final roller / rhythm section before the finish at SERC #1, a week ago Sunday at the Santos Vortex.

It might be 20 seconds, tops, to the finish line.

I am rider 813, a 43-year old cat-2. Everybody knows this because I have a gigantic “813” on my left calf written with a big, black sharpie marker.

So I enter the rollers and all of a sudden there’s a staccato “Come on come on come on hurry hurry hurry!” from behind.

Again, it is a mere 20 seconds to the finish line.

The rollers are tight like a compressed pump track, and they aren’t wide enough to pass. But there is a slight break for a fire road between the rollers. Being a gracious rider I pull to the side a bit so Super Aggressive Dude can get by.

He might be a pro, right? He might be racing for a position, right?

As I pull over on the fire road I don’t break speed, because I’m racing too, 20 seconds left or not.

Super Aggressive Guy does not pass. So I enter the rollers again and all off a sudden the staccato is back “Come on man HURRY UP!”

So at this point I let off a string of expletives at Super Aggressive Rider that would make a sailor blush. “We’re going through a @##$%# rhythm section 20 #$^&#@ seconds before the #$#%# finish dude, I already gave you a chance to pass!”

I said something like that. I’ll let you guess what the cuss words were.

After the rollers there’s a wide passing area right before the finish line proper, and Super Aggressive Guy still stays back. So this infuriates me almost beyond imagination. I turn around and glare at him as we roll through the line.

Apologies to Rider 203

Rider 203, I apologize. My string of cusswords was not personal. I wish you only the best this racing season, and hope you have many victories.

But you have to learn how to pass.

How to Pass Another Rider

Here’s the deal, my goal events aren’t until July and September. I didn’t have any speed at Santos and I probably won’t have any speed next week at Tsali because my I’m still laying down my base.

So if you come up behind me I am probably going to let you pass.

If you want to pass me (or another rider), take a cue on how the pros and race leaders do it:

When a pro or race leader comes up they yell out “Pro rider!”, “Race leader!”, or “Out of class coming through!”

If more than one rider is coming the other riders will usually yell out as well, “Two riders!” or “Three riders!” etc.

When I hear those words I get over to the side and will usually signal with my hand which side for the riders to go by on.

Even if someone yells out, “On your left!” I still try to gesture with my hand (because I am dyslexic and trying to keep track of left and right in a race can be challenging sometimes).

So the rider calls out, I point with my hand, and here’s where the miracle happens: neither I nor the other riders break speed. They go by, I keep a different line at the same speed, and nobody loses speed or time.

The only time I actually will slow down is when it’s really close to the finish line and I hear “Race leader!” In those cases I try and surrender the whole lane, but only if it’s safe, and only if I am not fighting for a final position myself.

I Am Not a Mind Reader

If you come up behind me and want to pass, and you don’t say anything, you have two options.

The first is to just go ahead and pass. I’m cool with that. This is a race and you don’t need my permission.

The second is to give me a heads up that you are there and you want to pass.

Nothing drives me crazy like the dude that comes up and rides my wheel, and then about a minute later says, “Come on buddy I need to get by.”

I am not going to initiate the conversation on your pass. You have to do a little more work than just sitting there and hoping that I know, or care about, your race tactics.

If I’m on your wheel it’s because I’m conserving energy by letting you do the work. And if I come around, I may ask, or I may not give you a heads up at all. It all depends on my race strategy.

I Am Not Going to Slow Down to Let You Pass

Ten minutes into the Santos race a rider in my own class comes up from behind and starts yelling, “Come on, Buddy, let’s catch those guys, hurry up.”

I ignore him.

A minute later, “Come on buddy, let’s go.”

I roll my eyes. Somewhat laconically I yell back, “You can pass if you want.”

Like I said earlier, my speed isn’t there yet. I know this.

I have very specific goals for the race. For example, I want to run it clean, I want to carry speed, and I want my last lap…when I am suffering and tired…to be as clean and as smooth through the Vortex than my first lap. Mission accomplished.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not racing. So if you want to pass and you’re in my class, you have to earn it. I’m not going to race you on the pass, and I will surrender some space if I know you’re faster, but dude, I’m not going to pull over and clap as you go by.

Plus, if I’m running in the back of the pack, you’re even slower than I am!

I understand if you threw a chain at the start, but otherwise you are Sucktastic today, too. If you’re busting the balls of 13th place so you can hurry up and be in 12th, please, put some ambien in your water bottle and go hit the pump track.

But to this guy’s credit, he just saw an opening and sprinted by, which is what I prefer actually.

It is racing, after all.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.