Archive for July, 2011

US Mountain Bike Nationals at Sun Valley 2011

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

by Sean Hess (, Rider for Strackacobra.

A Rider in the U23 Women's Race at Nationals Grinds through the rock gardens

A rider in the U23 women's Race at Nationals grinds through the rock gardens. Click for more images. Video below.

2011 USA Cycling Mountain Bike XC Nationals, Ketchum and Sun Valley, Idaho.

The best thing about Nationals is coming into a city or town where every other car has a rack with a mountain bike in it. The other half of the population is riding the bikes.

The rough part is getting used to a new course, a new soil type, and if you’re from some serious Florida sea level like I am, getting used to the altitude.

The course started at the River Run Lodge, part of the Sun Valley resort in Ketchum, Idaho. The base elevation was 5995 at the starting line, with about 1200-1300 feet of climbing on the longer laps. For cat-2s like myself we had two “prologue” laps (similar to a short track layout with a steep climb and rock garden thrown in), and a longer third 6-mileish “amateur” lap with the major climbing.

Now I thought the effect of altitude would be negligible. I thought this because I raced at similar elevations at the Sugar Mountain Nationals in North Carolina back in 2006 and 2007, and did pretty well. Well, my summation was not accurate.

The race started fast and I at least was third in the hole shot getting to the first climb. There was a lot of gravel and and I was pretty amped so my tires spun and I nearly lost traction a few times on the climb. It was, to use a technical term, a darn steep climb, and the altitude had me puffing like an old steam engine. But I held my own on the eventual descent and through the rock garden, and then we started the singletrack.

Well, mostly we walked the singletrack, at least the first 1/3rd of it. It was loose soil, a steep grade, and a few big, big roots to hop over going up hill. The end result was that there was a line as long as the eye could see of riders hiking with their bikes up the trail. Because the heats were run so tight (30 seconds) the leaders and stragglers ran into each other on the climb with the result that everything just stopped, and everyone hiked.

There was the inevitable dude in the back yelling, “C’mon guys just ride!” and the other inevitable dude who tried to walk by you on the narrow berm, but these dudes were shouted down and shut down. After all, leader or straggler, these were all elite amateur mountain bike riders. No one walks by choice. If these folks can’t ride a race on it, no one can.

As the grade decreased everyone was able to ride again and then the real racing started. I started passing people, watching the gears others were using and matching. But then the altitude kicked in and the riders I passed started passing me, and then the group I was with was gone. It was like a similar experience at the U.S. Nationals in Colorado all over again.

It occured to me as I rode alone that maybe I was so competitive at the Sugar Mountain Nationals was because I was racing other Eastern riders, probably none living at an elevation any higher than 1000 feet! Perhaps racing Western riders who live and train a mile high really did put me at a disadvantage. So, you know, lesson learned. Whatcha gonna do but line up and race?

I hit the downhill portion without the usual motivation to attack. I literally believed I was the absolute last in line. So much so that I let a group of four and then three riders pass me, figuring they were from much later groups.

When I saw the race results, however, I saw that I finished in 15th place, and only aobut 6 minutes out of 5th place. I wasn’t doing as bad as I thought. And I might have let some people in my own group by. And if I attacked the downhill like normal maybe I would have even passed someone else…hard not to do with only 6 minutes and 10 riders. So, you know, lesson learned again.

Traveling so far you get only one opportunity to learn the lesson (this year), and only one shot to implement what you’ve learned (next year).

And the moral is (at least for an Eastern rider living at sea level): you can’t compete at elevation. So race XC for fun next year and enter the Super-D…where climbing just ain’t an issue!

The day after the race I went down to watch the women’s U23 race…you can see some video I took below. You can find the still images on the Strackacobra page at flickr.

Ketchum and Eating in Ketchum

Kids playing on the big mountain bike in downtown Ketchum, Idaho.

Kids playing on the big mountain bike in downtown Ketchum, Idaho.

I think I’ll be back in Ketchum and Sun Valley next year. It was not only a great venue, but what other small town can you go to that has a bike shop almost every block? Plus there was a lot to do for the kids…a small splash park (Memory Park in Ketchum), a park with a giant mountain bike to climb on at the Ketchum town square, outdoor ice skating in Sun Valley, hot springs, mountains and rivers all close by. A really great place to vacation.

The night before the race I ate at a chinese place called Wonderful House at 5th Street and Main. The dinner portions were $10+, but they were huge. The menu said they were family style. So we ordered three dishes and had leftovers for the next two days. It was good stuff with loads of carbs.

Post race eating meant big 1/2 pound burgers at Lefty’s at 6th and Main in Ketchum. The people were really friendly, the food (including a kid’s menu) were affordable and really tasty, and it was a nice environment to unwind in. We heard to make sure and try these things called “monkey fries” (fries cut like a thick, wavy chips with a spicy coating), which were good. But honestly I liked the “straight” fries and onion rings better. It was all good.

The last place we tried was Perry’s deli in Ketchum. The sandwiches and salads were a little expensive, but you know, they were really fresh, really creative and really worth tasting. I had something called the Hawiian…it was something like chicken salad and pineapple on pumpernickle bread…and it all really worked well. We ate there on a Friday at noon and the place was bursting with people. So get there early.