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.
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.
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.
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.
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