At the starting line, minutes before the start of the X-country race at the Eureka Springs Fat Tire Festival, one of the women next to me leans over and asks, "Are you ready for this uphill?' I smiled, the corners of my eyes crinkling as I adjusted the straps on my camel back, and exhaled, "yes."
The race starts on the streets of Eureka Springs, at the base of a climb, and follows a dizzyingly twisty, part road, part gravel, part single-track route out of town. I had scoped it out on a pre-ride through town the day before. The hill she was referring to is called "The First Fatty Climb". A 0.2 mile, punch-in-the-face hill that averages 10% grade (I glanced at the Garmin on one pitch and it was registering 18%). It comes just 0.4 miles off the starting line and is followed a 100 yards later by a leg-busting 0.1 mile, 14% grade hill. Sheesh. Some cars would have trouble with that.
The Cat1 women started on the heels of the Cat1 40+ men, just minutes after the Cat1 39 and under men left the line. The Fatty Climb caused instant attrition, and before I hit the first sections of single-track, I was amongst a good pace group of silver foxes. Just as we were leaving town, something started rattling on my shifter, requiring immediate attention. I stopped for a few seconds, discovering that the dust cover had come loose... a cosmetic concern, but one that would rattle on every bump for the rest of the race.
I remounted and sped off after the group, just missing the sight of them as they entered the single track that marked the start of the Lake Leatherwood section. I was strangely alone, only occasionally catching glimpses of a rider ahead.
Descending a long single-track section to a T-junction, I thought I caught sight of a left-turn arrow on a tree and a rider ahead making a left turn. Blood-pounding in my ears, as I tried to recall the map, thinking the first turn should be a right. I turned left, a nagging thought that this might be the wrong way. But just past the turn, I started seeing other arrows pointing in the direction I was going, descending, and I barreled ahead.
I rode a long flowing switchback section, came around a tight turn, a confronted the flash bulb of a race photographer. He cheerily called out, "You're doing great; you're the first one!" Breaks squealed, and I came to stop. I questioned him, "no other riders have come by?" "No."
Uh-oh. No. No. No. I whipped out my phone and consulted the race map (accidentally took a screen shot). Right turn. Judging from the map, it looked like I could cut-off the switchback section with a little bike-whacking and back-tracking up a section of trail that had been used for the downhill course. I took off, climbing, and turned onto what I thought was the downhill course that would take me up to the turn I missed.
A quarter mile down that trail, I realized I was salmoning a later part of the course as first one Cat1 man, and then several others, came toward me and I had to bail off the trail. I had turned on the wrong trail, again. I turned the bike back around, back-tracking to the "right" trail that would surely take me to the intersection of the missed turn.
23:18 after making a wrong turn, I was back on course. It was gorgeous single-track. But now, I found myself among the Cat3 women and men, on technical terrain. Each rider graciously allowed me to pass as I called out on the approach, and they were spread out enough that I could gain ground quickly.
The trail descended from the dry, hot heights into a damp creek bed, steamy and slippery. I was motoring along when a root, five feet long, 2-inches across, and perpendicular to my path... moved. Too late to change course, I shrieked, rolled over the neck of the snake, and didn't look back.
Not long after that, I rounded a switchback to see the photographer again. I gave him a sheepish grin, and he called out that I was still "looking good." That's all I needed to know, as I emerged from the trees to ride through the cheering spectators along the eventual finish line, ready to start the first of two grueling laps. I checked the time, a little over an hour into the race. I at least had plenty of fluids on board.
The course swiftly started to climb out of the valley. Alternating double track and single track, it was very rocky, the sharp, jagged edges of crinoidal Ozark limestone plotted to murder my tires. I had no idea where I was in the race. I had passed one Cat1 woman before the finish; she mentioned getting lost in town as I passed - see, I'm not the only one - but I had to yet to catch any of the others. And then the first place Cat1 male came around.
I couldn't let him go so easily. I was disappointed that he had made the catch, and I tried to match his pace on the climb. Pumping hard, this might be the point at which my heart rate hit 191 bp - technically above my max. I was forced to back off a little, but my effort was rewarded by a long flowy downhill section, punctuated by trees and the occasional bench rock to leap over.
It couldn't last. From the course map, I knew that eight very steep switchbacks and a straight, steep ascent lay ahead. I rounded the first switchback and was popped by two riders pushing their bikes over a particularly technical uphill rooty bit. Christine, Cat1 40+ and a local St. Louis rider who I was sharing a house with for the weekend, saw me and immediately started pouring on the encouragement. I was finally starting to catch my field!
With renewed energy, I dug deep to get through the climbs. What came next was a long, fast technical descent. Second and third in the Cat1 men were gaining on me through this section, and I thought I could outlast them to the bottom, but they were loudly calling for me to pull over. We were going to fast. There was no where to stop, and fully braking would have sent me over the handle bars. I gently hung the rear wheel over the side of a gravel bar on the trail and laid down the bike as they sped past. Almost before I landed on the ground, I was popping back up, ready to finish the descent.
The rest of the lap went by in a bounce and a blur. A particularly technical downhill, rutted out by rainfall, had me momentarily wishing I was riding full-suspension (a Giant Anthem Advanced 27.5', to be exact). As I clung to the handlebars, I could feel a blister on my right hand rip off. In the immortal words of Jens Voigt, "Ooooh this is going to hurt".
40:10 for lap 1. A blazing time, and almost four minutes faster than I thought I would go. I was still chasing the head of the Cat1 women's field. The Cat1 men were finishing up their second lap, so there would be noone to challenge me on the uphill. It was getting hotter still, and the water in my pack had ceased being refreshing.
But the trail was undeniably awesome, and I was ready to test some speed and some skills now that I had seen the first lap... maybe "ready" is the wrong word for it, but I did it anyway. I felt like I was still chasing the leaders, though I couldn't see anyone ahead of me, had no idea how much lead they had, and I had long since decided (some where near the point that I realized how far off the course I had gone) that I was "racing" the clock.
My rear wheel hit a bench section on an angle and slid off the trail to the right. I fell hard to the left, landing with my hands under me. It was a "soft" landing on chunky rocks. I flicked my wrists, righting myself. I would have some pretty blue and purple spots on my palms, but nothing else. I thought to myself, "Cool it, Gilbert," no need to crash myself out of the race at this point.
It was as I was riding along, talking myself back on to the ledge, that I spotted the Cat1 (19-29) women's leader, just two miles from the finish line, up ahead. I was incredulous. We chatted for a second, and then I took the lead all the way to the finish line. Maybe I'm ok at this mountain biking thing.
Next race up: WORS Cup, Wisconsin.