My wife and I decided to make the Shenandoah 100 race a mini family trip. For the first time, we ventured to keep our 2 year old child entertained in the car for 10 hours of driving. The trip actually took us 13 hours for adequate rest time especially for the young one. I was very glad that my wife and son were able to join me. Although phone contacts are great, it does not come even close as being together even if it is confined in a closed space for 10 hours.
At the start line, I could not wait for the race promoter to give us the "go" as the chilly morning had many of us shivering. This is certainly why Chris Beck and Jeremiah Bishop went to the front and opened a small gap one minute into the race.
Jeff Schalk and I were at the lead of the main group gradually increasing the pace to join back to them. The group reformed causing a slower pace. I was pleased to follow this moderate pace for awhile but I felt that I could spin the legs a little bit faster. I eventually went to the front and increased the speed. I did not want to reach the single track downhill in a large group.
Shortly before the top, Jeff relayed me at the front. I took this opportunity to look behind. The group had shrunk to 6 riders: Jeff Schalk, Brandon Draugelis, Sam Koerber, Jeremiah Bishop, Chris Beck and I.
Right at the start of the downhill, Jeremiah pulled off the side. He just had a flat tire. The remaining of the downhill was pretty uneventful as we all followed each other closely under Jeff's direction. Once we reached the dirt road that brings us to the second major climb, we organized a good paceline where everybody did his fair amount of effort at the front.
Reaching to the single track climb, I was right behind Jeff. It is not a secret, I like climbs but this one is my favorite: it is in a nice part of the forest, it is steep, it is long and it is all rideable at the exception of a 10 yards stretch.
Jeff bobbled on some rocks putting me to the lead. I slowly started to pull away from everybody and thought it was not the greatest idea as I am not the best descender. I backed off the pace a tiny bit and when I reached the top, Brandon followed by Jeff were only 15 yards behind. I pulled on the side and let them go by.
The downhill was just fun and this year my tires held really good. After a short stretch on the dirt roads, our group of five reformed and we resumed our paceline. While Chris Beck was in the front and I in second position, a black bear crossed the dirt road about 100 yards in front of us. It was first time I witnessed a bear in the wild and while it was cool, 100 yards away is the closest I'd like to observe one.
The downhill of the third major mountain was once more a lot of fun especially closer to the bottom where the trail features some good size water bars.
It was now time to climb the fourth mountain which proved to be too much for Sam Koerber. As we reached the aid station #4, Jeff and I did not stop, Chris had a speedy pit stop but Brandon took a little longer. There, we reformed a three men paceline.
Few miles later, Chris let Jeff and I set the pace at the front; as he guessed that we would pull away anyway as the grade will increase in the fifth mountain. This is exactly what happened. As Jeff and I reached aid #5, we had a neutral stop. Shortly after, Jeff placed an attack but I managed to stay right behind his wheel. The trail is a succession of downhills and uphills before the long way down to aid station #6.
I could tell by now, that I had a little more in the tank than Jeff. Indeed, his normally smooth and efficient pedal strokes appeared to be more labored. Knowing my limits in the downhill discouraged me of placing an attack of my own. Why commit to an important effort if it is to be caught back immediately in the long downhill?
However, I did not have to ask myself what to do anymore. Jeff's chain dropped from the chain ring causing him to get off his bike. I took the lead, I thought I could take it easy for awhile and pull on the side when Jeff will come flying down the trail.
Not following anybody but riding at my own pace, I surprised myself how quickly I was riding. I was climbing a good 1 mph faster. I told myself that it did not really matter as I was convinced that Jeff will easily bridge back in the long downhill.
The only opportunities I have to ride that kind of terrain (technical downhill) are during races. I could not gauge how I fair against others. Anyway, I was certain to lose time but before I noticed I was almost at the bottom.
I came to an almost dry-out creek bed and heard the large stone contact the front rim. Wow! I should be more careful or I could get a flat tire... I slowed down a little for the remaining two times the trail crossed the creek only to realize that I did get a flat tire.
Lucky enough, I was right by the aid station #6. Another fortunate fact, I was in the lead and received the entire support of the volunteers. We pumped more air to the tire to see if the sealant would stop the leak. It proved to be inefficient and carried on with the repair by putting a tube. By the time we were attaching the wheel to the fork, Jeff rolled by. I was surprised that I could almost complete the entire repair before he came by. I must have had a good 2-3 minutes gap. Maybe I am not that slow in the downhill after all.
Quickly before the last climb I reached back to Jeff. He wondered if I got lost since he did not see me fixing my tire at the aid station as all the volunteers hided me.
On the early slopes of the climb, we tested each other's legs. A couple of accelerations later, Jeff gave me a tap in the back, telling me that I could go alone now. And so I did. I maintained the fast pace to the top of the hill but slowed down a little on the way down. I did not want to risk another flat with my compromised tire.
When I reached the double track leading to the campground, I had flashbacks from last year, where Jeremiah was performing a time trial beating me for the win for a mere 22 seconds after 7 hours of racing. It was not going to happen this time. I performed the best time trial I could until I reached the campground.
This time I had it! I raised my arms in the air while crossing finish line. It felt great! After a series of second places, I am pleased to finish the last NUE event of the year with a bang.
I finally reached the best time of the year. This is where I have good fitness but don't need to train anymore. It is just fun to enjoy the trails without any other goals but to have fun. A million thanks to my teammates for the encouragements and tips all season long. Many thanks go to my team: Team CF provided me with great support such that I could perform at my best. And without my wife's sacrifices, it would not have been possible to manage between family, work and training. The end of racing season probably comes as a bigger relief for her than for me!
It was like a big party after the race. My family got to meet all my racing friends/competitors and the members of Team CF. As a family man myself, it was encouraging to see Chris Beck and Chris Etough with their families.