US Mountain Bike Nats: Them Mountain States Boys Can Be Beat, Just Not Going Uphill

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

Gravity Sucks, Literally.

While I may have discovered the poor man’s way to beat altitude, there is simply no way for a Florida rider to get around gravity.

Gravity pulls you to earth. It pulls you back towards level ground. It makes you sit differently enough on your bike that your muscles develop and get stronger in different places.

Starting the race at Nationals.

The prologue: the last fast section before the downhill!

And if you don’t have those muscles developed enough by the time you hit a certain 9 miles of climbing, say in the XC race at the 2012 US National Mountain Bike Championships held in Sun Valley, Idaho, it’s going to be a long day.

“You think it’s over, but then it just keeps going…”

I was mentally prepared for the long climb. And I was fit and felt physically prepared. I was even prepared for the altitude (unlike last year).

But being prepared, and actually doing something really extreme for the first time, are two different things. There simply is no break in periond for climbing nine miles, over an hour plus, from 6,000 feet to 8,400 feet, without having done something like it before.

The grade wasn’t bad, it wasn’t technically difficult and the really steep sections were thankfully short. The climbing was mostly buff singletrack, with just a bit of scree here and there.

It was just the length. There is no way to prepare for it living in Florida. There may not even be a way to prepare for it living out East…I don’t think even North Carolina has a singletrack climb that long.

I came up a long exposed ridge thinking, “Well, we have to be close to the top.” And so I went around the ridge…and a mile away in the distance you could see riders climbing another ridge.

“Well, sh*t.”

So I went along this new, long exposed ridge and thought, “Well this may not be the end, but surely the end must be close.”

And I finished this ridge, went over the top, and…a mile in the distance I could see another ridge with riders still climbing uphill.

But these weren’t the most soul crushing climbs…

Eventually I did hit the top and started the descent. I started passing people, too.

And then in the middle of the descent…apropos of nothing…another ridge to climb. Twice in fact. WTF!? I’m done already! Let me go downhill! I DON’T WANT TO CLIMB ANYMORE!!! WAAAAHHHH!

I didn’t sit up. I kept climbing as hard as I could. But that’s when I knew the race was really and truly over.

So, Western riders, my hat’s off to you.

The Mountain States Boys Can Be Beat, Just Not Uphill

When you live in Florida you have to be:

a) A really good technical rider because of all the rocks and rock gardens you see in practice.


b) Really good going downhill if you are going to race, because you’ll never be able to hang with guys from the North Carolina and Tennesse mountains on the climbs. Descending well is the only way you can win, or hold the places you’ve gained.

So I was ready to bomb the downhill.

The downhill sections at Sun Valley were as buff and sinewy as the climbs, a bit rocky here and there, but not overly difficult.

What made things technical were the speeds.

Think about it. You climb up 2,400 feet. You descend some, and then climb up high again. And descend again. There must have been 45 minutes of downhill at Sun Valley, and all of it really really fast simply because of the distance you had to drop.

On a section of fireroad I got a bit spooked for a second. It occurred to me that I may have never went that fast on my roadbike going downhill…and I’ve hit 50 mph on my roadbike. Spooooooky.

The trails had a bit of a tique too. You would set up hard left early for a hard-to-moderate right turn around a blind corner. You go around the corner and there would be a tree in the apex at the edge of the trail. Apex…edge of trail…not supposed to be the same thing. These corners were just a bit tighter than I was reading. I started looking for them and railed every corner, but not before…

One of those trees got me. It was early on the downhill. I dirfted too far left on a corner and discovered a HUGE burned tree. I faced (no pun intended) the same situation once at Bump N Grind and managed to stop the tree with my jaw. So in the split second I had to decide I was able to make the right decision.

I still don’t know how I did it but I jumped off the bike. The bike went left, I went right, we both went down, but neither of us got hurt.

Three riders in a group passed me as I was getting up, but these would be the last people that would pass me on any descent the entire way down.

The trouble was those two nested climbs in the middle of the descents that I mentioned earlier. These climbs were long enough that people I passed on the downhill sections were able to pass me back on the climb. Argh.

But I learned one thing. Those boys from the West can be beat by an Eastern rider, just not going uphill.

A Great Course, A Great Venue

At 19.5 miles (a 1 mile prologue followed by the 18.5 mile amateur loop), the distance was fine for an XC race.

My only criticism of the course would be that, because the climb was so extended, the selection was made well before the race was half over. The downhill played no role in the selection. And since the selection was made by then anyway, why on earth have more climbing in the downhill sections? It just made for prolonged agony.

Plus, such an extended climb takes a lot out of even the best, most ready riders. It’s a lot to ask someone to climb a hill then be on point for such a long and, at times, harrowing downhill.

But that being said, even despite it’s length and toughness, it was a great course. The singletrack was first class all the way through. Heck, even the doubletrack was great. It was like a worst-to-first improvement over last year’s course. It had a little something for everybody…even a mile so of flat (paved bike path) at the beginning that favored we few-odd Florida riders.

And there is the reality that you only have so much trail to work with.

The alternative was a punishing type of extreme grade on a shaley fireroad that the Pro XC riders will face on Saturday. Or, like last year, as starting climb on a trail that really wasn’t the best for uphill racing.

So, all in all, a great job by the trail crew in Sun Valley. Excellent set up, marshalling and registration by USA Cycling. And super friendly folks around town here in Ketchum.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at

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