Please allow me to preface this with: I'm sorry.
Apparently bringing decent CAT3 roadie fitness to a beginner mountain bike race is sort of like bringing a heavy machine gun to a pillow fight. I honestly did not know this would be the case. I was competitive in cyclocross this fall, but by no means was I blowing away the field. Before today's race I expected to place well, and hoped for a win – but nothing was given. I've done three mountain bike races before, two in 2005 and one in 2006. In the first, I raced the clydesdale (fatboy) division, and had a mechanical. In the second I came in 9th in Beginner, and the third I had a mechanical in Beginner, converted my bike to single speed, and finished one up from dead last. Since then I've raced almost eighty road races, making my way up from the bottom, with a few placings – and a whole lot insignificant of pack finishes. More importantly I've put in tens of thousands of miles of pain. Pain in the cold. Pain in the dark. Pain in the rain. Pain in all three. I've also torn three ACLs, and had three knee surgeries – the most recent of which was eight weeks ago. I still don't have an ACL in my right knee. Did I mention pain?
While warming up for today's race I'd somehow forgotten how long a section of trail was – and as I watched the minutes tick away on my cyclocomputer I began to put in a hard bit of effort in an attempt to get back to the race start before the gun. My new hardtail build was responding like a champ, and I was reveling in how light, stiff and responsive she was. I let an expert rider pass as he was finishing his race – only to catch him and suck his wheel for the final miles of the trail. I made it to the line eight minutes after my field had left. I saw a fellow club member, and local wrench extraordinaire who yelled at me to GO, they'd left already. Great. I was already full tilt from trying to get back to the line in time, and even in the rain, and 40* temperatures my glasses were fogging up. In anger I tossed my glasses into the woods and drilled it. I was so mad at myself for being stupid that the pain was secondary to the anger.
I began taking big risks, and my breathing was so ragged and labored that I imagine those I was passing thought they might have to perform CPR on my heart attack addled corpse a few miles up the trail. I caught and passed all the women, then began picking off the men. My goal was not dead last. After I caught the first man, I wanted to pass five. After five, ten. After ten I lost count. I had no idea how many starters to expect, so at no point was I sure I was in contention for anything other than pack fill. I have never, ever pushed that hard off road before. Several times I came within a flinch of a face full of rocks and close personal bonding with the trees. If I wasn't going down hill I was anaerobic. The anger was welling up inside of me and boiling out of my ears. It seeped out of my pores in a thick ooze and burnt my eyes. How could I be so god damn stupid? What kind of rank amateur misses his race's start time? I twisted the bars and tried to rip the cranks out of the bottom bracket. In the final miles I began to blame the riders ahead of me for every ill in the world. Every wrong done to me was a result of their existence. They would pay. I hated them. I hated myself most of all.
As I bombed the final descent I expected to see a glut of riders milling around the start/finish. This was not the case.
“Noah, you won – you're an animal.”
“What? Are you sure? From eight minutes back?”
It turns out I put more than 10 minutes into second place in my age group, and was apparently the first Beginner man of all classes to finish. Not just 19-29, but 30+ and 40+ as well. Oh. Let me reiterate my apology. I mean this in all honesty, and in the spirit of balancing out my cycling karma. I left with a medal – but the payout/swag bag was given to the 2nd place kid, as he crossed the line thinking he'd won – as when I passed him he “thought I was an expert.” Oh. Sorry.
The win feels good, but there is no way in good conscience that I could do it five times to meet the NORBA requirements for a mandatory Beginner to Sport upgrade. I talked to the NORBA official who concurred that I should probably race Sport from now on. I'm fine with that, as my lap time would have likely put me comfortably on the podium in Sport as well. I'm looking forward to the stiffer competition. I moved up from 5 to 4, and 4 to 3 on the road as soon as I could. Today's experience reinforces my decision to do so – because to paraphrase a cycling friend “it's never fun to be the tallest midget in the circus.”