Archive for the ‘Mountain Biking’ Category

Race Like It’s Your Last Race

Tuesday, 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.

 

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

Thursday, 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.

All images, video and audio not in the public domain are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17–United States Code–Section 107) and remain the property of the film or photo copyright owners. Now go buy some Dos Equis.

With Apologies to Rider 203, Who I Cursed At

Monday, 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.

Santos Vortex Spring Training

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

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

Vortex Spring Training

While pitchers and catchers are reporting further south in Florida, I’m at the Santos Vortex near Ocala working on my own skills this spring.

My Florida State Series races last fall were disasters.  If I wasn’t having a mechanical, it felt like I was pedaling in glue.

I spent so much of the last year training on the road I lost some of my edge on the mountain bike.  So my coach Tristan Cowie and I came up with a plan to just work on fundamentals this spring.  And since I’m in business it had to be based on SMART goals (Specific Measurable Achievable, etc.).

I went out and started filming myself in the Vortex in places I’ve always had trouble with, or where I knew it could be ridden better.

Most of the improvement I’ve gained isn’t in physical skills per se, but in mental approach.  The course isn’t changing, the bike isn’t changing, and I’m not changing.  But my approach to each corner, berm, and turn has changed.  In short, I am seeing a different course now.   I ride it completely differently and not only do I ride it faster I use so much less energy doing it.

It’s not always perfect.  One week on the Horseshoe Bend section I caught myself on tape crashing.  My kids make me rewind it over and over again and laugh mercilessly as I go down.  But to be fair, it is funny.

And some weeks I’m more distracted or out of sync than others.  On the Challenger Curve sections I felt like Session 1 was much better than Session 2 (though it turns out I had the flu in Session 2 and wouldn’t realize it until later in the day).

As I start consistently hitting my marks on a section I move on and film new sections.

It’s been an amazing spring.  It’s so much fun to ride the mountain bike again!

Watch me crash in the vid below, about the 1:20 – 1:25 mark:

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

Jeckyl and Hyde At Bump N Grind: Being Two-Faced is a Good Thing

Friday, June 29th, 2012

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

Jeckyl and Hyde: The New Section and a New Race Layout

This year’s Bump N Grind race at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Alabama, featured a new section called Jeckyl and Hyde.

Simply put, it is an awesome section of trail. Think of a downhill pump track. Lots of rollers and not a lot of climbing. Not a huge number of banked corners, keeping it true to XC, but not many flat corners either and plenty of grip for your tires.

Sean Hess at the Bump N Grind

Strackacobra at the Bump N Grind

Jeckyl starts by splitting away above Blood Rock into some immediate, very technical rocky climbing before starting the descent through several switchbacking sections also loaded with rocks. The rocky sections are similar to the babyhead and rock sections on the Granby course at the 2009 US Nationals, if you’ve ever been on that course.

From there it becomes the smooth and sinewy pump track all the way to the bottom.

The one real challenge? As my coach Tristan Cowie said after the race, “That’s a long section.” You have to be in good physical shape to run Jeckyl and Hyde just because it is so long.

But it’s a perfect ending for the new race layout.

Racing as a cat-2, the race started in the new section around the lake then merged with the traditional Bump N Grind “red” course through the singletrack, up the long and rocky fireroad climb, and started its descent back down by entering at the (normal) Blood Rock entrance. The difference this year was that we took the split to Jeckyl and Hyde instead of taking Blood Rock down.

Blood Rock, Super D and the Expert Race Course

With a smile on my face I say it really and truly sucks to be cat-1 or pro at Bump N Grind.

Those poor souls started the race by climbing Jeckyl and Hyde, dropping down Blood Rock, doing the regular race course and then finishing up with Jeckyl and Hyde like the cat-2s. All I can say is that if Jeckyl and Hyde is a long descent, climbing it had to be misery.

This year Blood Rock was off the cat-2 loop but featured as a stand-alone for the Super D course. The race started at the top gate (where the paved road meets the fire road), and then dropped down Blood Rock, finishing at the paved road crossover.

Blood Rock is perfectly suited for Super D…it’s quick but highly technical XC. As a rider you try and set up for a corner only to notice that the buff, brown corner is actually a buff, brown rock that is going to throw you on your buff, brown butt if you hit it. So you constantly have to make adjustments flying across the scree. It is pure fun.

I raced it as my first ever Super D and finished 7th out of 14 in my age group of all cats. I threw my chain right at the top (backpedaled while shifting) took a few minutes to “lock in” after the distraction of dismounting to fix it, but still cleared the course. Like I said, pure fun.

I ran into several Florida riders I race against in SERC and we were talking about how great the combination of Jeckyl and Hyde along with Blood Rock…and nothing else…would be for something like the national Pro XCT series, usually held at ski resorts. A combination like that would mimic the ski resort courses…difficult, steep climbing from the start merging into a steep and technical downhill.

Not sure if it will happen, but it might bring back our World Cup level pros back to racing in the South.

On Passing and Being Passed

After the lakefront start I entered the regular “red” section of the Bump N Grind course running in 4th or 5th place in the cat-2 40′s. I was passing a lot of people not in my age group (or maybe in my age group…really hard to tell from behind), and I did it by simply yelling out “rider back” in an appropriate spot. The other riders may have moved a over a bit, but it was my job to accelerate through.

Somewhere on this section some yahoo in my own group started the “hey bud let me pass” chatter. So I moved ever so slightly to the side but I didn’t slack off my speed. And this dude wouldn’t pass.

This guy kept up the chatter, and he kept getting angrier. Like I said, I was getting over a bit, but I wasn’t dropping my speed either. Meanwhile, he’s following me as I pass through the other groups, some groups as big as four riders, in the same amount of space I was giving him.

Finally he yells out, “DUDE WHY YOU BLOCKING?” And I yell back “DUDE WHY CAN’T YOU PASS?”

I do not get up at 5 am every day to train and then drive over 500 miles to race, sleep on the ground in a tent and eat cold food, just to slow down so that The Rider Just In From the World in his moth-eaten Pearl Izumi shorts can have an easy pass in a competitive race.

Dude, where were you at the hole shot? Where were you at the dam crossing? Why can’t you pass me like I passed everyone else?

When we hit that long straight section bridging the two sections of singletrack he passed me along with one other rider in my group, dropping me to 6th place. That’s when I noticed he had moth holes in his shorts. Good riddance.

You know something, if I’m not at full throttle or am starting to fade then I get completely out of the way. Or I get out of the way at that inevitable moment during the really short lap races where the pros start coming through.

But when I’m going full throttle and you’re in my group, we call it racin’, and if you are relying on throwing a tantrum to get a better position, better just stay home.

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

Fumbling Towards Ecstacy: The First Podium

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

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

I grabbed my first ever podium at the US Cup East / SERC race earlier this year at the Tanasi Trails (Ocoee Whitewater Center) in Ducktown, Tennessee. Hooray!

Ducktown is arguably the hardest course on the circuit, with six miles of climbing per lap. You go straight up the mountain, take a bit of a break for some flowy singletrack, finish the climb to the top of the mountain, and then go straight back down really fast on some fireroad before hitting the fabled and supertechnical Thunder Rock Express.

On the podium, far right, at Ducktown.

On the podium, far right, at Ducktown.

I wanted to get some really consistent power on the climb. To achieve this I really studied the gear ratios in my 32 and 22 chainrings, so I could run the highest cadence in a particular ratio, and thus the highest speed.

I pretty much nailed it. I noticed right away that I could run a higher cadence in the 22 ring at a ratio of 1:1 and above. This higher cadence put all of the effort on my aerobic system and helped save my strength. It made climbing easy in the first lap, so much so that as I hit the “hard” grades (from year’s past) I would kind of look back and think, “Was that the really hard part, because I hardly noticed it.”

My power faded in the second and final lap. Even though I was keeping a consistent cadence all the way through the race I noticed I was running a lighter gear. I was six minutes slower in the second lap…other riders were dropping about three minutes, so I gave these other riders an extra three minutes to gain on or catch me. But I was able to hang on to the ragged edge and fifth place.

In the end it was the downhilling that saved me. On the gravel fireroad descent I was passing other riders (out of different classes). Normally I get passed or hold even on the fireroad descent. And it felt really easy. On Thunder Rock I ran really well, especially on the second lap where I got some of the time back I lost climbing.

I didn’t really know if they were going to stand five or three for the podium in my class, and I was too afraid to ask. So I dutifully stood there clapping for the other riders until they called my class and called my name. I had the pleasure to witness Dave Berger of Goneriding butcher my sponsor name “Strackacobra” for the first time.

I made sure I looked out and remembered it…it’s been a long time coming.

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

San Felasco Trail Conditions June 2012: Breaking The Cage

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Sean Hessby Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra

Well, it’s the last week before I ship the bike out to Nationals so I decided to get some downhill work in at San Felasco Hammock, just north of Gainesville, Florida.

The Meadow Trail at San Felasco

The Meadow Trail at San Felasco

San Felasco has some of the few downhill sections in Florida where you can get a bike up to speed before hitting some tight, techinical corners. There are plenty of downhill sections in Florida, but most are very short and very steep…the San Felasco drops have greater length so that, for a short period of time, you can get some cornering work done more like you see in the mountains.

Before You Practice, Don’t Wreck Your Bike

The last few weeks have seen some pretty heavy rains. As such there’s tree debris all over the trails.

And it rained overnight, too. Which meant the jeep roads through the grassy meadows I like to cut through were just loaded with dew (I was riding at 8 a.m.), and my feet were soaked by the time I hit the Tung Nut trail.

The grassy sections of Tung Nut were even rough: the feral pigs that live in the forest were using the trails as wallows, creating huge holes of torn up dirt.

Looking sideways at the cage, and the cage appears straight on!

Looking sideways at the cage, and the cage appears straight on!

In the corners the sand was wet and would shear away from the layer beneath if you railed it too hard (later in the day the sand dried out, becoming soft and grabbing your wheel).

So by the time I got to the singletrack I was soaked and dirty, and I hadn’t really started riding yet!

Then, while coasting down an easy, flat section of trail my tire picked up a rotted piece of tree limb and jammed it into the cassette.

I was really lucky. The tree limb didn’t get into the spokes and wreck the wheel. And I was able to clean the wood out of cassette with an allen key. But as the wood forced its way to the cassette it bent out the derailleur cage.

I was still able to shift but I lost the 11-gear on the cassette, and about halfway down there was just a little jumpiness in one of the gears. But for the Grace of God go I, I was still able to ride.

As it turns out the derailleur hanger and the derailleur itself may be bent. But I took it to the bike shop (Bicycles Etc in Jacksonville), and they got it shifting again with no new parts needed. Bless them!

The Conquistador Trail

The Conquistador section at San Felasco has the best section of downhills.

Conquistador goes up and down a ravine, so you get very fast, very sinewy descents with tighter, sometimes rocky corners at the bottom and then gutbuster climbs back up.

It’s not often you can huck rollers in Florida but this is the place for it. By the time I was finished riding I was not only having fun getting air beneath the bike at speed, but getting good speed through the corners as well. There were still a few too many times with too much brake, but what are you going to do?

I ride the trail in both directions during a session. After all, it’s not a trail built for beautiful riding as such, it’s a trail built so you can get better at riding.

Accessing Conquistador

Conquistador is accessed via an unmarked spur off Canebrake 8 (the trail itself isn’t marked until you reach the actual entrance).

Back in the day the entrance was easy to get to, right off Hammock Hub.

My guess is they moved the entrance because hikers were using it, and by moving it further back to Canebrake 8, only the people who were really looking for it could find it. It’s not a hidden trail, but putting the entrance off Canebrake makes it a much more intermediate distance to hike or ride to.

Hikers have always been allowed on the trail and, as far as I’m concerned, they are welcome on it.

However, it’s a purpose built mountain bike trail meant to test the skill of above-average riders. If you are going down one side of a steep descent, and another mountain bike rider is going down the other side heading into the same corner, chances are pretty good that you will hear each other, and see each other before you meet in the middle and crash in the turn.

Hikers on the other hand are quiet, don’t move fast, and can blend in. So if you are rocketing down a descent and meet a pedestrian on the trail, there’s a strong possibilty that you are going to crash unless you see them in time. More than likely you’re going to go off trail into a tree or endo to avoid hitting them.

In the past more and more frequently I was seeing couples in fannie packs out on Conquistador. Mostly it was while climbing but it was always a surprise. I remember thinking to myself, “What are you doing out here?” But, you know, I was always polite and said “Good morning.”

I just started riding San Felasco again this spring (since they moved the entrance), and I haven’t seen a hiker yet.

Just a hint to riders: the original entrance is still there and maintained, but it’s really hard to see unless you know where to look for it. And when it enters Conquistador it’s not marked either.

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

Visit Sean at Google+ .

SERC / US Cup East #2: Tsali and Hardtimes

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra

Tsali and Hardtimes

Tristan Cowie of CTS

Tristan Cowie of CTS, Coach of Awesomeness

Another race at Tsali, another heartbreak.

At least it was just my heart breaking, and not my front wheel (like last year).

I finished 28th in a field of 41 after I thought I had a pretty good race.

I blamed everything. I especially blamed everyone else having newer bikes, which is true but not the reason I placed where I did.

The fact is, while some of the group probably climbed better than I did, at least 27 of them descended better than I did.

And that’s fair. I always have a little difficulty with this race on the downhills. I live and train in Florida, and at this point in the season I simply am not acclimated to the speed yet.

Usually there’s a trade off; while I may not sparkle on the hills I’m generally in better shape than the other riders because I can train on dry roads all winter. So I usually place higher. But it’s been a warm winter everywhere and my built in advantage will now have to wait until it gets really hot.

So what to do?

Hardtimes Trailhead

The Hardtimes Trailhead is in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest in nearby Asheville, North Carolina. That’s where I met my coach, Tristan Cowie of CTS, the day after the race.

Officially Cowie raced for Brevard College and has stood on the podium at the USA Cycling Collegiate Nationals on multiple occassions.

But the reality is, if there was never a podium, Tristan was born to mountain bike. He’s like one of those guys you see in Bike magazine, photographed while flowing over singletrack. He’s like Harry Potter on dual suspension, coaxing magic out of the bike and the trail where none existed before.

As we worked the flowy uphills and downhills of Bent’s I trailed behind and absorbed as much as I could. At first he disappeared on the downhills like a ghost…literally gone while I trailed in the dust.

But we’d stop and work over a set or corners, walk through them and look at each of five different lines, and then go over them a few times. He still left me in the dust, but at least I could keep him in sight after awhile.

My whole approach to corners is different now, more elemental. I still overbrake at times, but I brake a whole lot less now because the bike natually finds the corners. And things are so much smoother, so much easier.

Will this translate into success in the SERC?

Well, if they don’t, it won’t be the bike’s fault.

BTW, my older, heavier bike did have an advantage at Tsali: more weight means more momentum means more free speed out of corners. An advantage I didn’t take advantage of but which I will in the future.

SERC / US Cup East #1 at Hailes Trails: Swatted By The Hand of God

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra

A Normal Race To Start…

Hailes Trail Grandmasters 2012

The grandmasters take off at Hailes Trails

I was running 10th or 11th by end of lap 2 and closing the gap on the guy in front of me. I was closing on him on every climb but couldn’t close all the way. I kept after his wheel but he kept getting away due to better handling skills on the corners and drops.

I really didn’t have a lot of top end speed for the race, which is normal so early in the season. But I was recovering well, so I figured on the last lap I could go all in and move up as far as possible.

Swatted By The Hand Of God

So I’m just starting the final lap, and on one of short hills and one of the steepest pitches in the race…for some reason that’s when a pro decides to pass me.

Look, I’m good with the pros passing. They are generally so cool so gracious about it–and they give you heads up when they are coming through–but on this pitch, on that line?

So I get bumped and I lose my chain and pedal because I’m still on the pitch. And I get off and fix it, then get back on, somehow manage to close on my target rider and another pro decides to pass me on on my line on another short steep pitch…

The pro purse was five deep…maybe this guy thought he still was in the running. I don’t know.

So I lose the pedal again time and have to run to the top of the hill.

I go on to lose a pedal two more times on the easy tech sections in the rock garden—because I’m pretty distracted by now and just a bit pissed.

Now I have to work to get back to my target rider, and somehow, I manage to catch and close on him. Again.

I come around a buttonhook corner and my front wheel goes out from under me on some oak leaves (“Florida brown ice”) and I crash.

Shit.

I get up, dust off, and charge on. After the first quarry drop, I can see my target rider ahead of me on the climb and I’m making some time back on him because he’s not doing so good at this point.

I drop into my low gear, middle chainring, and the chain goes right into the spokes. Are you kidding me?

Actually my first thought was “Andy Schleck.”

Then, appropos of nothing the chain shoots past the little chainring when I try and fix it and goes into chain suck mode. Fix it I do, but to make matters worse, the crash and now the chain allow four riders to pass me.

The rest of the lap? Well I got the four positions back before the chain went into the spokes again!

The third lap was literally like, as soon as I made that strong effort to close the gap on my target, I was swatted by The Hand Of God right off the course.

You can’t make this stuff up. In 7 seasons of racing I have never put a chain into the spokes. No problems in practice, warm ups, or in the first two laps under the same conditons.

The moral? If God wants you in 15th place, you will be in 15th place!

The Silver Lining

Specialized had a free massage tent set up for the riders after the race. A big shout out to massage therapist Catherine Daas for bringing life back into tired legs!

12 Hours of Santos 2012: An Unpopular Dick for the Second Straight Year

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

by Sean Hess of Strackacobra / St. Augustine Team.

The 12 Hours of Santos 2012

Make your own slideshow with music at Animoto.

The Bergers

First off, a big thanks to Dave and Terri Berger of Goneriding.com for putting on this race year after year.

Gravity riders aside, American riders don’t want ski resort racing. They want singletrack. Twisty, gnarly, buff, and sometimes harrowing singletrack.

This is the lesson the old NMBS and NORBA circuits never got.

But the Bergers get it, and the sport is growing like a proverbial weed here in the Southeast with great events on great courses hosted by Goneriding.

Long may they ride!

Buckeye Leaf or 4:20 at Santos

“Hey hippie, what’s that leaf on the back of your bike?” the dude asked with a smile. “Do you get that a lot?”

“No, this is the first time,” I said.

I’m an Ohio State fan, and I have stickers of a Buckeye leaf on the back of the seat tube of both my bikes, the same type the football players wear on their helmets. To the uninitiated it can look lke a ganja leaf. Just so you know: the Buckeye has five leaves, ganja has seven.

Turns out this guy was a huge Ohio State fan and had Buckeyes on his bikes too.

“I live in Gainesville and I get sh*t about it all the time,” the dude said. “Since we stole Urban from them it’s kind of weird living there.”

Coming to Grips with The Killer Instinct

Talking strategy with my coach, Tristan Cowie of CTS, before the race was an eye opener. The subject was passing.

“You know,” he said, “when you come up on another rider the best thing you can do is sit up and take a drink. Don’t necessarily look to pass.”

Everybody knows that cycling is essentially about using someone else’s energy to further your own goals. Nowhere is this more obvious than in professional road racing where the peleton conserves it’s own energy for hours before it attacks and crushes a breakaway.

But in mountain biking, where it’s hell-bent-for-leather from the opening whistle, where it seemed to me that every other rider on the course was just an object to get around, Tristan’s words made me stop and think.

“It’s always better to be second wheel,” he said, “let the other guy do all the work and freak out about holding his position.”

Now, it being a six hour race, and one I was doing more for training purposes…and not even one I was planning to finish (see below)…I wasn’t going to go all out each lap. But the tactic where you relax and actually rest a bit and drink instead of look-to-pass, look-to-pass, attack! attack! attack! Man, that was new to me.

So I’m somewhere in the race on the Vortex’s west side and I come up on a really young rider, maybe 13 or 14 years old. I can blow right past him if I want to. But you know what? Slow down and take a drink.

FYI, I used a camelback for the first time for this race and it was a HUGE difference. No worrying about metering out a bottle in a slower lap. It was super easy to stay hydrated and focus on the race. And I only pitted once instead of having to every go-round to switch bottles.

Anyway, I’m behind this kid and we run a section I run all the time, and he takes a different line than I would. And it was a much better line. I learned something by slowing down and backing off the pass-pass-pass mentality.

Hmmm, ride wheel, conserve your energy then pass when circumstances and conditions warrant…well, that’s why I like Tristan.

I Am An Unpopular Dick.

I would assume that the teams racing 12 Hours of Santos need riders. But no one ever asks me to join. I don’t even get the chance to beg off because I don’t want to race at night. It’s. Just. Nobody. Asks.

So for this year, and for the second straight year, and the third time overall, I am officially an Unpopular Dick. Unpopular Dicks end up in the 6 Hour Solo category because they don’t have a team.

There are guys that race the full 12 Hours alone: those guys are Weird Unpopular Dicks. Who the hell would want to race 12 Hours, on a bike, by themselves? Weird Unpopular Dicks, that’s who.

A Weird Unpopular Dick goes into a bike shop bragging that he just raced 12 Hours solo. And then, after said dude leaves, the guys in bike shop tell each other, “Don’t invite him to the team next year, anyone that would go 12 solo has a screw loose. You, like, don’t want him around your chick while you’re out on the course.”

There Are Even More Unpopular Dicks Than Me

Still even more unpopular than myself or even the 12 Hour Solos are the Toolbags.

12 Hours of Santos has one consistant feature: bottlenecks in the opening prologue lap. Because when you put that many riders on the course in the same place all at once, at some point things are going to back up.

Well we were maybe 15 minutes into the prologue lap and things were backing up on the technical sections on east side of the Vortex, past the BMX tricks area and the second ladder. You drop down this fast, straight hill, and in seconds you come to a tight left turn with rocks and roots. Well, things were backing up there.

I ride Vortex all the time, so I know where the line is through the roots. So I slowed just a bit earlier to let one of the walkers clear so I could ride it instead of dismounting.

Well, Mr. Toolbag is right behind me. “Hurry up! Hurry up! Ride or get off and walk!”

So, I’m thinking, “WTF?” I gap him here and there but he keeps doing this, bumping my rear tire. And seriously I don’t care because I know this guy is a Tool. But it’s still p*ssing me off.

Plus, there are literally hundreds of riders on the course. It’s the prologue: even if you pass, the riders haven’t spaced out enough yet to warrant a forced pass. While this dude is bumping my tire there are literally four riders directly ahead of me, wheel to wheel. And you know, if you want around just ask!

So I make sure I keep it tight to the line for another 10 minutes so, just to let Tim The Toolman get frustrated. Finally somewhere in the Twister section he just cuts a buttonhook and passes me and another guy, forcing himself back into the line.

The competitor in me wants to destroy this guy. I know I can do it. I want to pass him and force him to look at my the back of my kit again, just to p*ss him off.

But this is a 6 hour race. The idea is to set a steady pace, not run it like the cat-2 at Haile’s Trails. And what Tristan said also came to mind. Sit up and take a drink.

As we ride along I see Toolman cutting the buttonhooks, bumping wheels, until a rider in front of me crashes and we stop to see if she’s alright. When I get going again the dude has disappeared.

As I come back through the same place on the next lap I think about how smart it was to back off. This guy was white knuckling his bike, hunched over it and driving the pedals with totally poor form. If I would have rode that way I would have been out, completely blown after one full lap…and a bigger Tool for having done it.

Wasn’t it Obi-Wan Kenobi who said, “Who’s the bigger Tool? The Tool, or the Tool who follows him?”

Trail Hotties

There are always lots of beautiful young women at mountain bike races.

Fresh faced and earnest, always just a bit pinched with worry, they surround the starting line watching their boyfriends and husbands getting ready to race. It’s cool to have your man in a race.

Well, by hour two those fresh, earnest young women are slumped in camp chairs in the pit areas beside the race course, bored out of their minds and wondering what in the hell they were thinking when they agreed to come out and watch.

Sweaty riders laboring past one after another. Then the husband or boyfriend will roll by about once every hour, grab a gel or bottle and then disappear again. About hour four the rider gets the, “Hon, I got to go…give me a call when you finish.”

This is kind of a running joke among us older riders: “Your wife here today?”

“Ah, no. She doesn’t usually come to races.”

Mr. Z’s Birthday

My race was actually The 3 Hours of Santos.

A day earlier it was my son’s 2nd birthday. We were going to have his birthday party on Sunday, but circumstances changed things and instead we moved it to Saturday, the same day as the race (which I’d already signed up for). So I had a hard deadline of being back in St. Augustine (where I live) by 5 pm. That meant I absolutely had to be off the course by 2 pm.

The race was scheduled for 10 am, but actually started about 10:20. I finished the prologue lap plus three full laps by 1:20. Not enough time for another spin round the course.

Had the race started at 10, I probably would have been able to squeek in that fourth full lap. But finishing early was nice, too, because I didn’t have to rush getting the bike and gear packed, and changing clothes.

I averaged about 10 miles an hour, which is what I was shooting for…a steady, even pace that I could do for hours.

Mr. Z, my son, was born 2 years earlier while this race was going on. And I was on the Santos trails, just starting out on Pine Tree actually, when my wife called to tell me that she was pregnant. So I think about Mr. Z a lot when I’m riding out there, and racing.

A final shout out to OMBA.

The Ocala Mountain Bike Association (OMBA) lovingly maintains the Santos trail system, all 80 miles of it.

I went out 2 weeks prior to volunteer on a trail maintenance workday, always the first Saturday of the month. It was a bit self serving, because I got to personally walk and clean the Vortex sections that I would be racing.

But it was also good for building karma, and making sure that these trails that I ride so much are still here to ride in years to come.

Live in the area? Ride the trails at Santos? Get out and do trail maintenance!

Buckeye fan or 4:20 at Santos

Buckeye fan or 4:20 at Santos?