A few months ago I impulsively signed up for the fifty mile single speed race at the Tour of the White Mountains, a mountain bike event put on by Epic Rides in Pinetop, Arizona. I had never been to Eastern Arizona and knew almost nothing about the course, but Epic Rides puts on great events and I had the weekend free so I decided to give it a go. As the race quickly approached I was a bit nervous, due to my lack of knowledge on the course and inability to get a pre-ride in I still wasn’t sure which gear to run. I asked everyone I knew trying to get a sense of what to expect. I heard everything from smooth and flowy to ‘you will curse your life on the hike a bike section’. A wide variety of responses left me flying blind so I decided to go with my standard 34×19 gearing and see how it would play out. The one thing I did know about the race, the altitude, was also contributing to my pre race nerves. Historically, I haven’t done well in races at altitude and this one starts at 7,200 feet..not crazy high, but high enough for this desert dweller to be worried.
Race weekend came and I was rolling solo because Danielle was busy throwing her sister’s bachelorette party. The car was all packed and I hit the open road to start a three and half hour drive up to Pinetop-Lakeside. As our little four cylinder engine Honda Element whined its way up some of the steep grades, my apprehension about the altitude increased. Eventually, I arrived in Pinetop and pulled into the camping area near the race start. I found a spot next to my Flat Tire Bike Shop friends, checked in, completed my early registration for 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo in February, and heated up my dinner of fried rice. A little while later, after the racer’s meeting, it was time to catch some Z’s before the early 7 AM start.
At 5 AM the next morning my alarm went off and I was up and at it, game time! I quietly reheated my leftover fried rice for breakfast and got some coffee in. I was excited to race. I made sure to get to the start line early because I did not have a Tour Pass which allows you in the front corral in staging. Tour Passes are earned by previous Epic Ride performances, except for 24 HOP…so no pass for me, but I was determined to stage as close to the front as possible. Much to my surprise all the single-speeders got called up into the front corral. As I walked up to the front I saw Hunter and Ian already standing there, definitely the stronger single-speeders of the bunch. Things just got real, I really hoped my gearing choice was good.
We were off and ironically by the title of this post, my start was awful. I got squeezed on the inside of a corner and had to scrub a lot of speed, loosing a few positions right out of the gate. To make things worse the area got pounded with rain a couple days before the race and the first double track section was saturated with large puddles. The group bottlenecked down to single file, dodging the mud bogs. Thankfully, this was short lived and once we turned onto the single track the trail was hero dirt. Game on! I started to make up some ground from my poor start. The single track starts with a steady climb and my gearing was pretty good so far, but there were lots of rocks…tons of rocks. Whoever told me this course was smooth must have made a wrong turn. I made a mental adjustment and pushed on. As the course went on we quickly zipped past a dozen or so intersections and trail junctions. I had studied the map prior to the race, but not having ridden up there I was reliant on the course markings. Thankfully they were all well marked with pink flags and/or volunteers, but there were enough trail junctions to drive you mad, similar to Brown’s Ranch at home. The Chipmunk Connector and a portion of Los Burros went by pretty quickly as the course made a hard right onto Vernon McNary Rd, a well maintained dirt road. I tried to suck the wheels of some geared guys, but my whirling legs were no match to their mechanical advantage and they pulled away. All of a sudden I was in no man’s land…spin…coast…spin…coast…repeat. Finally I looked back and saw someone, surprisingly it was my friend Nick Skaggs. I asked what he was doing back here because I knew he had a good start and was up front, and as he passed he mentioned that he had made a wrong turn along with the Hunter and Ian, the two single speeders in front of me, or rather behind me now. SPIN I told myself, however my stint at the front was short lived. Both Ian and Hunter are strong riders and caught back up to me after a couple miles and then proceeded to pass and leave me suffering trying to keep up while dodging the rocks and trees.
Have you ever gone to a buffet and loaded up on a plate full of food to only eat half of it? That time where your eyes were bigger than your stomach? That was me, except my eyes were bigger than my legs and my gearing choice was starting to leave me with the unsettling feeling of fatigue that comes with biting of more than you can chew. I wanted to push a good pace so I chose a gear harder than what I should have and I was beginning to pay the price. Now a little over half way through, I started the second climb on the Land of the Pioneers Trail and I struggled to make it up some of the climbs. ‘What I’d give for another tooth in the back’ I thought to myself. I had been warned about this portion of the course and one person’s recollection was pretty accurate: “You will hate life, until you get to the hike a bike and then you’ll really hate life”. I kept thinking is this the hike a bike? Nope…next climb? Nope. In this mix of stair step climbing I dropped another position to a guy running a rigid fork. While I envied the lighter set-up, there’s no way I’d run a rigid fork on that course. It was way too rocky. I wonder if the same guy who told me it was smooth talked to him. Finally the hike a bike arrived and it was obvious. There was no way to ride this, straight up with roots and rocks in the way. I could see indentations in the soft dirt where those ahead had dug their cleats in for traction. Up, up and away I went. I pushed my bike, huffing and puffing the entire way. It’s shocking how hard it is to push a bike up a hill when you’re tired.
Finally I got to the top of the climb and was ready for the reward, a really fun and steep descent. I descended off the mountain and soon merged with the 35 mile racers. When we merged I immediately saw my friends Chad and Rick. Chad quickly disappeared however and it wasn’t till after the race I found out why, his saddle broke and fell off leaving just the rails still attached to the seat post; he affectionately referred to this as the “scrotum scrambler”. I got onto a quick fire road connector and chatted with Rick for a bit, thankful to be among friends, just the right medicine for some aching and fatigued legs. Not much later another friend came flying by and cheered me on, and then another. The mountain biking community is awesome. Back on the single track and Chipmunk Connector I knew I had to keep the effort up. I wasn’t sure how far ahead 3rd was at this point, but I knew there were still some strong riders behind me. Thankfully going this way on the Chipmunk Connector it was a slight downhill but the rocks were really putting up a fight. I really had to focus on being smooth and light on my hands, all while watching out to make sure my pedal didn’t strike a rock. At one point along this stretch of trail I found myself all alone and I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a trail marker. I didn’t think I had missed a turn, but I was growing concerned. I pedaled a bit further and still no markers, so I stopped and listened for any other riders. Only a few seconds went by when I finally heard and saw a long train of riders barreling down the trail towards me, phew no wrong turns! I started pedaling again and of course saw a marker just ahead. Before I knew it I was back on the railroad graded trail with all the puddles and just a mile later I was across the finish line…4th place in the singlespeed category with a time of 4:37. My goal was sub 4:35, so I missed it by thaaaat much, but I was still happy with the days effort, and the altitude wasn’t as bad as I feared.
The after party and venue for this race are top notch and probably the best around. I enjoyed some BBQ and some free Sierra Nevada beverages (they had 16 kegs on hand), with all tips going to help the local firefighters. All of this was enjoyed while listening to some quality live music, catching up with friends and hearing how their races went. At 2pm awards started, it was impressive to see the top finishers and their times. Eventually the single speed category got to go up and I was happy to share the steps with some really fast and talented guys. We all got our trophies and Sierra Nevada’s and even took a little podium selfie…single speeders have more fun! I am happy to have kicked off the racing season with a good start and look forward to this race next year, but for now all eyes are on 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo.
None of this would be possible without the support from my better half, Danielle. It had been a while since I went to a race without her and I definitely missed having her support and smile at the finish. My great sponsors also make sure to provide the best support so that I’m able to stay competitive, special thanks to Thomson Bike Products, Rudy Project, Pactimo, and Flat Tire Bike Shop. And finally a special thanks to Dave Marks and Racelab who always makes sure I am properly trained and ready to race.