Sucking Air in the Super D – Licious at Mountain Bike Nationals

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

In case you didn’t get to race the Super D at this year’s Mountain Bike Nationals in Sun Valley, I’ll describe the hill to you. It was a BIG hill, right at the start of the race and about three quarters of a mile long. It started at 7,800 feet just off the gondola landing at the Roundhouse, it had three separate pitches, and the middle pitch was the bitches of the pitches.

I really pinned it going up that hill. Just pedal to the metal, time trial, field test style pinning it.

And baby I was sucking air like a carbureted ’76 Ford Torino with a vacuum leak by the time I hit the top.

I went so hard I nearly threw up…at the bottom(!)…an effort like that will do that to you.

Sean Hess of St. Augustine Team / Strackacobra riding the rock wall at the 2012 US Mountain Bike Nationals

Riding down the rock wall at the end of the Super D.

This was only my second-ever Super D. Here’s what I learned:

The guys that showed up for the race were there just to race Super D. These were elite downhillers. Their seriousness and skill showed me how to approach a downhill race.

Second, you have to place your wheels perfectly in a downhill race. Like skiing, running lines loose or wide costs you time.

Third, you have to get your practice time in.

Practice Time

The XC races are the darlings of the Nationals, so practice time for the Super D is limited while the races are going on (the Super D course was ran mostly on the XC downhill).

So when a thunderstorm rolled in one night for the allotted Super D practice…I didn’t get to practice. And when I finally did get to practice the night before the race I flatted on the first downhill section. And the choice was either to re-run the course with no backup tube and a chance of walking down in the dark, or to just go home and rest.

I chose to go rest.

But I did get to see the hill on that single run. And the section where I flatted wasn’t on the XC course either…so I was able to prepare for that better, i.e., be careful in that corner, dude.

The Benefits to Flatting

I flatted on the first switchback of the downhill section. It was super loose and chunky heading in, and the switchback was blind.

Loads of riders were missing the switchback corner and crashing, stopping or falling.

Basically, there was an outside line and a more extreme inside line. At the last second you saw the turn, and then hesitated as you saw the inside line. That last-second hesitation was causing a lot of riders to go down.

The benefit to me, anyway, was that I had plenty of people to talk to.

I remember telling a guy, “I raced a 19 mile cross country race with no problems and I flat on this five minutes in…”

And I got to see Adam Craig come by while I was getting ready to go, which was cool. The dude was smooth like butter. He was defending national champion and he would win the whole thing again the next morning.

When pads go bad they still provide consistent handling.

When my pads went bad I kept them in the race because they still provided consistent handling.

Prepping the Bike

You want to see some brake pads well past their prime? Then look at the pads I raced on.

I put on new pads before practice but they were too responsive.

So I put the ones that were shot back on. Because at least I knew how they would handle at speed.

Burlier tires?

That would be nice. The problem was my Larsen TT 2.0s were back in my in-law’s shed in Salt Lake because I forgot to bring them up. Shipped them all the way from Florida and forgot to take them to the race.

So I am possibly the only guy in history who’s raced a downhill event on 1.90 tires (Maxxis Larsen TTs).

But it worked out okay. And those 1.90s were fast up the hill.

The Race

Warming up for a Super D is a trick. You have to go so hard off the start it really pays to warm up. But if you warm up too hard you can end up tiring early…there’s no time to warm into it like an XC race.

So I warmed up on the fireroads near the roundhouse to get my climbing muscles firing…high tempo and low tempo, then bombed a bit of the fire road just to get used to the drift and feel of the gravel.

We had individual start times so I got called up to the starting gate at 10:53 am. There was a digital clock counting down and a race official telling me when it was time to go.

From there it was all sound and fury. Hard up the hill. Careful in that loose corner. How the hell did the chain come off? Just keep downhilling until there’s a rest then fix it. The fireroad…follow that guy in the orange…ride it like he does, like a motorcycle drifting just a bit in the corners. Last corner on the fireroad and set up for the single track entrance. Hit the lines right. Switchback-switchback-switchback…roll through the corners then sprint-sprint-sprint. The Rock Wall…set up on the far right side, rear brake only till it clears then let go. DONE!

21st place out of 27. Not bad for the only other guy from east of the Mississippi (and one of only four from east of the Rockies).

I can do this.

Super D Boiled Down to Its Essence

There is a ton of handling skill involved in running a downhill race.

But be that as it may, it’s not really a race against the mountain or even against the other riders. It’s a race against yourself.

The only thing you have to do to win a downhill race is to simply never touch the brake.

Yes, you do have to touch the brake to make certain corners and switchbacks, but in the end it’s really a race against your own fear. And your fear is measured in how hard and how often you pull that brake lever.

And at the end of the race every rider except the winner can say they pulled the lever too much.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at

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One Response to “Sucking Air in the Super D – Licious at Mountain Bike Nationals”

  1. [...] The Super D race convinced me that I did reach acclimatization early using my Hypoxia Regimen. I was able to go all out, 100% on the starting hill climb before the downhill and I nearly caught the two riders who started ahead of me at 1:00 and :30. I went gratuitously over my own redline and was able to sustain it for as long as I needed to get to the top of that hill. My final position in the race had more to do with having only once ever dropped 2,000-plus feet in a race in a single shot (and that other time was three days earlier in the XC race). [...]

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