I did a pre-ride of the cat-2 course recently at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Alabama, for the upcoming Bump N’ Grind XIX. Here’s what to expect…
This is a fitness course, with an asterisk.
The cat-2 course at Oak Mountain may be the perfect American race course. It offers something for everyone.
The start is classic Eastern USA singletrack. Buff and loose-over-hard to start, it transitions into rooty sections where it seems like the root is always in the apex of the corner. Rarely linear, the course keeps moving side-to-side and up and down, with buttonhooks, short but intense climbs, and sketchy, short descents. When the final sections are wet the mud can shear away from the surface like ice shears away from pavement, dumping a rider who isn’t careful.
The climbing begins up a cobblestoned jeep road with some pretty serious pitches. When you are fresh in practice it requires your attention. When you come in tired off the singletrack from racing, it can be downright soulcrushing. You have to switch from side to side to find the smoothest line, but you still find yourself fighting the cobbles.
In hot years there will be volunteers at the bridge midway up the climb with cups of Gatorade and water…I’ve always elected to have it poured over my head. God bless them!
The final pitch of cobblestones goes straight up. It’s hard climbing but you are at least rewarded with…no more cobblestones. This is called the “Crest of the Climb,” but in reality there’s still plenty of climbing left on what are essentially two longish false flats punctuated by short descents. After the flats there’s a long and straight descent on the rocky jeep road before you’re back into the singletrack.
Jeckyl and Hyde
After the climbing, the reentry to singletrack can be jarring. Immediately you have to navigate rocks, but that’s just an appetizer, because in just a few moments you hit the mother of all rock gardens at the top of Jeckyl and Hyde.
Jeckyl was added to the race in 2012. It starts with a long and impressive succession of rock gardens that wind up and down a narrow countour, before switchbacking and gathering speed into some truly tricky sections. It is an upper body workout.
The difficulty is twofold. The first is finding rhythm and flow as the sections climb through rocks then drop off quickly, rebounding up into short, high-RPM uphills. The second is managing the lines through the last rock gardens, where it can be daunting to find the line through so much gray-colored rock at speed.
I did this upper section fresh in the morning, and while I wasn’t fast I found the lines easily and had some rhythm. Then I rode it at the end of the day when I was exhausted, and I was all over the place, losing a pedal on the final section of rocks and running it out cyclocross style.
And when the rocks are over…you still have a ways to go.
The meat of Jeckyl and Hyde involves descending and climbing around a series of ridges that get progressively smaller as you wind your way to the bottom. It’s a fun ride, built a lot like a pump track.
You can fly on the descents and the trail telegraphs pretty well. There are a few tight turns but no surprises generally. The great thing is that even when you are ascending they give you some energy-saving rhythm.
When you finally get to the bottom there’s a little more singletrack before the finish. You will be tired.
I say this is a “fitness course with an asterisk…”
The riders who are fast and fly on the singletrack will jump out early and if they can get far enough ahead, they may survive until the end. There’s that killer cobblestone hill for the climbers to take that lead back over, and Jeckyl’s gnarly descent for the downhillers to take that lead back if they can just stay close.
So a rider has to be fit to hang on for the entire race and win, and especially to stay in contention in the sections that they are weakest on.
The asterisk is Jeckyl and Hyde, both for its extreme technical section, which will really slow and throw some riders with its upper body workout, and for its length…a rising and falling descent of 4.4 miles…which in the end will just take too much concentration when a rider is at the end of his or her mental rope.
It’s a fun ride. I hope to see you there!
Bad Decisions Make Great Stories: Ride the Lightning
While riding the course I climbed my cross-country bike up the gravel road to the start of Lightning, the purpose-built downhill course at Oak Mountain.
The BUMP folks have a sign at the entry to Lightning with all sorts of warnings to cross country riders, especially experienced cross country riders, about attempting this trail on their cross country bikes. It is an absolutely sufficient warning.
To make a long story short, I crashed, and crashed hard.
I came up to the top of a right, looked down the long straight gulley, then up to a table at the top of the next ridge, and didn’t see anything dangerous.
I let the bike roll and it wasn’t until I was nearly at the top on the other side that I saw the lip…
What you are supposed to do is pump this little lip and the bike will rise gracefully into the air and land on the table.
What happened was that the bike did rise gracefully, the back wheel over my head, my shoulder and helmet smashing on the table underneath, and the bike landing gently on top of me.
It was a classic yard sale with only my glasses staying at the point of impact.
If I were watching I would have laughed my head off. Seriously, it must have been hilarious.
It was a good thing I was wearing my larger camelback and a sleeveless fleece vest over my kit which gave me some extra padding when I landed.
I had a huge scrape on my left shoulder, a new scar to go with the two on my right. What I can’t figure out is…how are those jerseys made so they don’t rip in wrecks even when the skin gets scraped away underneath? Cycling kits are crazy tough.
I rode out the trail with a little more attention to detail.
The thing is, this is how you learn to mountain bike. The crashes are necessary. It teaches your eyes where to look for danger, and it teaches your reflexes how to handle technical features.
The problem wasn’t the bike, or the course. The course, while steep, offers no surprises. It’s a great course.
The problem was me, the rider. I wasn’t expecting the lip. The last time I crashed going uphill was on the Big Gulp section at the old Razorback, where there was a whoop-dee on the upside after a steep and screaming descent (I had a similar result the first time I rode that).
I never crashed on Big Gulp again. Now I know to where to look at Lightning.
The thing that really p*ssed me off as I gingerly worked my way down was, “That was an easy lip, dammit! That would have been fun!”
Oh, and that I broke another helmet.
Dang it, those things are expensive.
When a cyclist bleeds.
So my gloves ripped and my hand is bleeding and my first thought is, “No! My session can’t be over!”
My second thought was, “Oh, this is really going to hurt cleaning up!”
I’m not sure which is worse:
The actual pain from the crash…
The anticipation of the pain that I will experience when cleaning up…which had my stomach in knots…
Or, the actual pain of cleaning up, when that anti-bacterial gel is burning through the open wounds…
This time it turned out to be the anticipation. After five minutes of riding the pain went away from my hand…but I was terrified about the burning from cleaning up.
I rode the trail out to the north trailhead, then back to the showers at the campground, inspected the damage and cleaned up, and to my surprise, it wasn’t that bad.
I had a big ding on my forehead and the scrape on my shoulder, and my glasses cut the bridge of my nose, but the soap was gentle to me this time.
I put on a clean kit, got something to eat, packed up the tent and picked up my backup helmet, and headed out for an afternoon ride.
See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com.