Ah, Transylvania. That time of year when Mike is particularly poetic - even for him. Click away and absorb all the race-brained content he hath provided:
This year, Transylvania is shorter - they chopped the TT and last stage, retooling the remaining stages into a 5 day festival of climbing, burly-ass rocks, and couch fires. For the first time, I conned-vinced a few teammates to make the journey to central PA and experience all the delights they read about in my race reports.
I'll let them go ahead and tell you how that's going (Alex may or may not be throwing me a blanket party tonight).
I should start out by saying I broke my bike before the race even started. Last night I degloved a pedal simply by checking the torque on the bolt.
Hopefully I got that out of the way early.
The first stage was Coburn, the "road stage" of Transylvanias Past. Usually fast, dynamic, and quite fun in a group, I was looking forward to once again dangling from the seatposts of dudes generally above my pay grade. The strategy on a stage like this is more or less "hang out until you get dropped, then hang out with dropped dudes and work together"
My race started - as they tend to - with me getting gapped off immediately. Mean Matt Green, flush with fitness and fury, dove into the singletrack on the back of the lead group, and proceeded to get rad through the twisting, loamy singletrack of the start loop. Thing is, Mr. Green was on a single speed, and I - though delighted to watch the show he was putting on (the boy can truly slay corners), had a wheelsucking appointment with Dr. Timmerman and I was running late.
I came out of the trail onto the climb up Sand Mountain (actual name) with Matt Timmerman and Chris Hamlin, who seemed MOTIVATED to catch back on. And few things in mountain bike racing are as painful as riding behind a motivated Chris Hamlin.
Except, perhaps, crashing behind him.
Yes, on the first of who knows how many enduro sections, Matt late-hopped a particularly large pile of rocks, causing my following-too-close ass to fly over my handlebars and land DIRECTLY on top of it.
And on the knee that got tweaked when I got hit by that car 2 weeks ago.
So, things were going well.
A chase group caught me, lead by a guy who looked more like a roadie for Rush than a bike racer. YYZ led through the remainder of the section at a relaxed pace - too relaxed for my now amped-up race brain - and we came out on the pavement with a few other guys in tow.
Whereupon Geddy Lee thusly DROPPED WATTS on the road.
After he murdered all the dudes in our group, I managed to squeak out a "please stop trying to actually kill me and we can work together".
Because we were catching Hamlin and Timmerman again.
We settled down a bit, and coalesced into something resembling a chase group, taking turns enthusiastically spraying one another with 1st day watts.
I say again: today was traditionally the "road day", where we usually take a small break from getting taint-blasted by every bit of pointy Pennsylvania rock left by a thousand spiteful glaciers.
They changed it.
Today was climbing. Climbing on roads, climbing on dirt roads, climbing on dry rocks, climbing on wet rocks, climbing on rocks THAT ARE SOMEHOW MULCHED INTO TINY SLIVERS OF GODDAMN MULCH ROCKS, and climbing on rocks that you had previously descended on.
And I was in a group with Neal Pert and Marco Pantanis giant-thighed science experiment.
Turns out his name is Bob. And he was - despite the hate his legs had been heaping on me all day - a really nice dude.
We kept the group more or less together until the "last" climb, at which point it was LIGHTS OUT. The wind didn't go out of my sails - they cut the masts and set the ship on fire. Bob rode away like he was the only one not riding through 4 inches of mud, and Hamlin - probably hearing my couch burning behind him, took off in pursuit.
I staggered through the last few miles, getting very politely passed by what was left of the chase group. Maybe I looked as pitiful as my legs felt. The stage ended in a final enduro, so I was like "OH THANK GOD AT LEAST IT'S DOWNHILL".
Which, of course, it was not.
Filled with hate and bleeding watts and time like hemophiliac losing a swordfight, I chopped and cursed my way to the end of the stage. I was broken, totally cracked, and demoralized.
I totally didn't realize that we were in the group racing for goddamn 5th.
After yesterdays catastrophic carnival of wattage, I was looking forward to some old fashioned rock smashing. Tussey Ridge, the iconic Transylvania traverse, is the centerpiece of 35 or so miles of truly robust climbing and even more aggressive rock gardens. I cannot stress that last bit enough. Because even though Tussey is the namesake, a trail called John Wirt is the real heart of the stage.
And John Wirt takes no shit.
We "staged" across the street, under the direction of Dave "Surprise, You're Racing" Pryor. If you remember, last year Mr. Pryortold us we had "plenty of time" to pee before the start, waited until 15 of us were full stream, and yelled "GO" as loud as he could into his bullhorn.
So I was not particularly surprised when he nonchalantly said "we'll start racing at the bison" (there were bison, for some reason).
The start was what I've come to expect of this race: 50 or so dudes who think they can hang at Lindine Pace, only to shrivel and die one at a time in the wake of Justins majestic quads. I held on for a bit, mostly trying to keep ahead of the human land mines detonating all around me, trying to find an appropriate group of like-wattaged humans, and eventually settled in with the now usual suspects: Hamlin, Blue Kit Guy, Giant U23 kid, Other Giant U23 kid, and Joe from Canada.
Also present, some guy on a hardtail with a Ferrari font logo.
Ferrari Font was dissatisfied with our progress, and on the first long climb, decided to bridge the 15 or so seconds to the still-visible leaders.
After a few rounds of disinterested shrugging, Blue Kit Guy was like "I TOTALLY GOT THIS" and took off after Ferrari Hardtail. Which produced more disinterested shrugging. Hamlin was setting the pace - which was ROBUST (U23 kid had a power meter and it kept pinging, alerting him to what he described as "power records") - and eventually we reeled in a dangler or two.
Just in time to start the first enduro.
Which was... confusing.
Not because it was particularly technical, but because of the INCREDIBLY SHARP blind corner 5 seconds in.
Which had a guy standing next to it.
And another guy in the bushes.
And, a second or so later, me in the bushes.
To which the guy standing there said "oh yeah, I'm supposed to warn you guys, huh"
Picking leaves out of my teeth and trying to asses the damage while careening down the loose descent, profanities familiar and obscure thundered from between clenched teeth and gasps for breath.
The damage was minimal, though annoying. My left brake lever was flipped at an odd angle, and tight enough for me to not experiment with moving it too much. More worrying was my inability to get into my 3rd easiest gear. Because holy hell, we were about to get dropped in the most bowel-loosening test of suspension and tire pressure imaginable.
Remember Mr. Ferrari Font? On his hardtail?
We passed him, pale and glazed, staring at the trail like it was a living thing coiled to strike.
This trail also claimed Hamlin, who flatted most unfortunately about halfway in.
Now it was me, the two kids, and blue kit guy.
We paced ourselves well, going through our paceline smoothly, with everyone enthusiastically contributing.
Sadly, blue kit guy acquired a slow leak, and was tailed off before we hit John Wirt.
Or, I should say, John Wirt hit us.
Personally, I think this is the best trail at Transylvania. Tussey gets all the pictures, with its glorious backdrop of horizon-spanning mountains and new-growth forest, but John Wirt is the true arbiter of endurance - the measure of your physical and mental ability to withstand relentless abuse while trying to decide on a line that is not only good for now, but will carry you through the next 5 bike lengths without suddenly ripping your bike out from under you.
It's a chess match where your opponent is allowed to hit you repeatedly with a sock full of quarters.
The three of us emerged from a bewildering long-form static avalanche, took a bottle from the aid station, and continued on.
All working together, thanking the gods of Earth for the smooth road beneath us.
On the climb up to Tussey, one of our group started to unhitch. We tried to encourage him, slowed down a bit, but when you're cracked you're cracked. Ask me how I know.
Now down to two, we rode Tussey "wisely" - not hammering, not slacking. I took the lead halfway through, almost crashed us both out fumbling around with a bottle, and finally settling in just in time for the hateful, hateful climb out of Tussey. This interminable ramp of rock-strewn humidity tested our legs and patience in equal measure, finally yielding to a twisting switchback descent to the last aid station.
Which is MUCH FARTHER from the finish than you think it is.
Giant U23 dude and I worked together well. And by "well" I mean "I mostly hid behind him and held on to his seat bag". I kept telling him to keep it manageable; my intentions simultaneously selfish and altruistic. Because holy hell, the last few miles of this stage are HARD. A long dirt climb, a remarkably steep and blasted out grassy climb, and a final giant middle finger of a grind next to an interminable stretch of deer fence.
We crossed the line together, a pair of haggard guys in colorful underpants with hollow faces and drooping shoulders.
In the distance, John Wirt offered a curt nod.
We met his measure.
Stage racing is hard. Sometimes too hard for race reports. On day 3 Mike spent all his "recovery" time helping Ian find parts for his bike, so no blog posts. Instead, please enjoy a smattering of media:
How the dudes travelled
How the Lady-Dudes travelled
A Smattering of DirtWire Interviews
I am full of pain and angst after today pic.twitter.com/h2OrO2YXm1— Carlson (@killersim00) May 30, 2016
R.B. Winter Is Coming
After a confusing and somewhat demoralizing situation yesterday with my enduro times, I stayed up fairly late trying to come up with a game plan for the rest of the week. Unfortunately, my 2-ish minute deficit to 5th place was completely obliterated by my dismal result and any path to a decent finish seemed completely out of reach. I was pretty crushed - this year was my best-ever chance of wide-angle podium glory, and the thought of wasting those 20 hour trainer weeks in February made me (and my poor undercarriage) very, very sad.
After much embarrassing and self-pitying rumination, I went to sleep.
And dreamed of burning couches.
Because verily, today there would be a bonfire of broken living room furniture.
The start was set up by Dave "Flavor Flav" Pryor, whos job at the beginning of each stage is to hype up a bunch of already nervous bike racers by saying things like "THIS START IS GOING TO BE FAST. SO FAST. ANYONE WHO WANTS TO DO WELL SHOULD BE AT THE FRONT RIGHT NOW. DID I MENTION THIS START WILL BE SUPER FAST".
And we started on a hill.
As soon as the pace car pulled off Dan Chabonov decided to see if he could stretch his 5 minute power into 10 minute power, shredding the field and instantaneously forced a selection. The GC guys seemed content with this, but I was hanging on the back of the struggle bus like Marty McFly on his way to school. Drew Dillman attacked almost immediately, which did not improve my sense of self-worth, but also (thankfully) did not provoke a response from the group. He came back, and one (or both, I was pretty crosseyed) of the Spanish guys took off, which DID elicit a reaction from everyone not vomiting on their handlebars.
Which left me, Chris Hamlin, Alpha Giant U23 Kid (Alex), Ceasar Grajales (!!!) and a few other dudes who I couldn't see because they were near the back. We navigated the 1st section of singletrack, enduring multiple attacks from Team Ferrari Font and trying to set something resembling a sustainable pace. We pulled on to the road 15 or so seconds down on the Lindine Group, and Alpha U23 laid down a very aggressive tempo on the front.
Only to be replaced by Grajales, who arrived in a fire truck and proceeded to SPRAY US WITH WATTS.
He closed the gap to the leaders, barreled his way to the front again, and somehow CONTINUED TO SPRAY WATTS ON US.
I was halfway through telling Justin that we would stay out of their way when Grajales started shouting and gesticulating wildly The kind of behavior you expect from a man covered in bees or roadie trying to get a breakaway to do some work.
We were all very confused.
We were even more confused when he laid down a vicious attack on a small kicker before the next singletrack section.
Our group hit that section HARD. Unsustainably hard. Not wanting to hold anyone up when it split, I told Alex that I was going to backoff a little. His response was a barely-audible "thank you".
Once we caught and dropped a rapidly disintegrating Grajales, it was down to me, Hamlin, and the U23 kid with legs built like bridge supports.
Which was great.
We kept on the gas, shredding through some of the most beautiful woodland not on a map of Middle Earth. The trails were a mix of raw-as-fuck singletrack, ripping jeep trails, punishing technical climbs, and excellent descents. We were actually going quite well.
Then it started to rain.
And Hamlin had a mechanical.
And it started to rain harder.
Like, holy crap I can't see hard.
It was just me and Alex's Legs, blasting along. Drafting was almost impossible - my glasses were useless and relegated to a pocket, so my vision was reduced to a shitty Degas painting of grass, dirt, and that kids thighs piledriving my soul into the ground. We have been riding together this week enough to know each others strengths well: He tows me on the road and I lead him through more technical bits. The two of us really would combine into quite a bike racer.
We attacked a hard right hand corner off the road and into a sodden wall of pine needles, loose rocks, and probably goddamn banana peels. Sprinting up, full gas, and maybe 15 seconds in we independently reached the conclusion that simply walking up was easier than putting in a 400 watt effort to ride up at a walking pace.
The rain was somehow getting harder, and we went into a tricky section that may or may not have been an active stream bed. I somehow lost him on the way down, and when I sat up to wait for him he did not immediately emerge. Hoping he didn't have a mechanical (he's a really good kid, and has been SLAYING it this week) I struck out on my own.
Which was lonely.
And the sky was most definitely trying to drown me.
When I saw the last enduro section I almost shouted aloud. Because I knew the stage ended with an enduro, and holy hell was I DONE with the 100 grit sandpaper that had somehow infiltrated my bike shorts.
I blew through the section with joyful abandon, getting sideways in the corners and pushing the bike as hard as I dared in the downpour.
I emerged from the segment triumphant, celebratory.
But there were no people.
There was no finishing arch.
There was no timing tent.
Because I was not at the finish.
I was not even close to the finish.
And the rain had reached a blinding intensity.
There was much cursing and furious pedaling.
A small green dot formed on the horizon.
For miles he was just a speck - a bobbing, washed-out greenish smudge on the edges of my dirt-scoured vision. Everything but the rain was happening so, so slowly. We were individual ants marching to an unconfirmed picnic, driven by instinct and dwarfed by a threatening landscape.
Another slippery rock section.
Another washed-out climb.
Bobbing green dot.
Bobbing green dot.
OH SHIT GREEN DOT! ENDURO GREEN DOT!!
Mustering what little enthusiasm I had left in my leaden legs, I sprinted through the final section. I passed Drew, we said hi, and I went full gas to the end, collapsing in a panting heap next to the pavilion.
4th place, I had done it.
I had set fire to couches in a rainstorm.
Where Couches Go To Die
All week long, we have been hearing about how diabolically hard today was going to be. Starting with a 1800' climb, dropping into a trail "never before used in a race", across some of the most challenging singletrack of the week... aaaand more or less repeating that format for 35 or so miles, only to finish on top of* Stillhouse Hollow, a climb that is more or less a 20+ minute couch fire.
We're talking straight-up Japanese Game Show levels of WTF-ery.
As I type this - at 5pm - people are still rolling in.
From a 10 am start.
My mission for today: put between 3 and 4 minutes into Alex Of The Giant Legs to move into 5th place on GC.
The problem: I felt like doo-doo. My stomach was unsettled, my face felt swollen and gross, and the accumulated fatigue of 5 days of getting my legs chopped off by thighs foreign and domestic wasn't exactly bolstering my already low confidence. Additionally, the rest of the GC was super close - first and second were separated by less than a minute, Timmerman had cracked the day before, and I'd put about 15 minutes into Adria Soldevila yesterday - putting a whopping 30 second buffer between me and Captain Climbypants. On a day with 6000 feet of elevation gain. In total, there were 5 or 6 guys that stood to gain or lose multiple places on GC based on a handful of seconds after 5 days of intense racing.
It was gonna be HAAHD.
And - surprise surprise - it was BONKERS. The nuclear option was deployed almost immediately, as the Excited And Climby Spanish Guys took turns flailing off the front while a lead group of 6 or 7 of us blasted clear. AND I WAS THERE! We rocketed through the mile or two before the first ascent (please be a road climb please be a road climb) and I enthusiastically held on, dangling like an unflicked booger on the edge of the big boy table.
We hit the climb.
The singletrack climb.
I set my teeth and pushed, and the trail alternated between grassy, watts-devouring doubletrack and a bumpy, moist, lazily twisting path up the side of F@%k You Mountain. My legs and lungs were sending messages to my brain that I was doing my absolute best to ignore, but after a few minutes of unforgettably soul-destroying singletrack climbing my body made it clear that I was either going to disengage or pull over and throw up. I dialed my effort back to ALL OUT and let the leaders go a bit.
So we climbed.
This hateful, humid incline seemed without beginning or end. The leaders were visible but impossible; there were pursuers that I could hear: their shallow gasping punctuated by the occasional ping of pedal on rock and the accompanying fusillade of bad language.
Groups traded members as individual riders stock gained and lost value. I dropped and was dropped.
I ended up in a group with Alex, Drew, the Guy Who Raced In Between Enduros, and (occasionally) Dan Timmerman, the latter oscillating wildly between looking like he was going to die and dropping us without breaking a sweat (he dropped us).
Still we climbed. The mountain - soaked with yesterdays rain - turned every rock into a full-body effort, every root into an ice covered, ass-clenching gamble of billy-goating clear or eating handlebar at 3 miles an hour.
Upon completing mountain bikings version of Mt. Midoriyama, we were presented with a ridge of impossibly mossy, glistening rocks. I love rocks. I'm actually quite good at rocks - particularly the slick, sketchy stuff. But this pile of granite covered in skateboard wax not only took my lunch money, it pulled my underpants over my head, kicked me in the nuts, and stuffed my into a locker. Lest you think I was the only victim of this cursed field of Laurentian land mines, the angry sound of cleats sliding across wet shale behind me gave me some hope that as long as I could stay on my bike and keep some sort of forward progress, I'd actually be ok.
Drew got off his bike.
He was worried about the chute.
We had been warned about "the chute". From what I'd been told, I expected there to be an old-timey undertaker at the top and a stack of pine boxes at the bottom.
It was just a chute.
A chute which I ran down at 20 miles a freakin' hour, hoping to avoid the shame of being photographed walking the least terrible thing we had been asked to ride so far today.
I was heckled and photographed without mercy.
Drew and I worked to consolidate our lead, and were joined eventually by Alex and The Guy Who Raced Between Enduros. There was some truly excellent trails through here. Meandering through low scrub and high valley walls, the course wound its way ever upward; our ragged, heavy breathing jarringly out of place under the otherwise silent canopy. I was riding poorly. I still felt kind of bad - not even in my legs (but yes, definitely in my legs), but in my stomach - a bloaty, slightly off feeling that warned against overexertion. My head was pounding. I shut it out, plowing into corners and turning mistakes into opportunities to stand up and sprint for a few pedalstrokes.
It was no use. I got tailed off a bit again, and used an almost vertical, brake-cooking descent to get back on.
I deployed my grappling hooks and dangled tenuously.
We were almost to the first checkpoint. I knew there was a climb up to that checkpoint, but figured it wouldn't be anything compared to the ruinous incline we had already managed.
Then I recognized the climb up to the feed zone.
Sputtering and swearing like a longshoreman working on Christmas morning I hacked my way up the near-vertical stretch of rooty wetness, furiously emerging a few seconds behind Drew and Alex.
This wasn't going well.
Everything hurt, and I was riding like a knucklehead.
And then it started to rain.
The next several miles were a blur, a badly-edited montage of sliding back wheels and desperate line choices over soaking wet rock beds. I do remember the climb to the next checkpoint required me to salmon my way up a 4 inch deep waterfall of brown water. Once I swam my way up Mt. Giardia and across the sodden (but somehow still cheerful!) volunteers at the checkpoint, I was greeted by another stretch of giant rocks covered in olive oil. The trail is apparently called Beautiful, because nothing is prettier than broken bike parts and rolled ankles.
Off the back of this, I finally started to feel better. Or at least more competent driving my bike.
Which was helpful, because dropping into No-Name in a thunderstorm requires... some bike handling.
No Name is a foot wide trail with a near-vertical wall on the right and a near-vertical drop on the left. It is steep. It is rocky and rooty. It is finally something I can do well.
I caught Adria about three quarters of the way down. He was unclipped, bouncing and flailing around like a puppy on an electrified floor. In the interest of both of us living to see the bottom, I started talking him down as calmly as I could, slowing down dramatically but managing to emerge - stressed but unscathed - to the bridges at the bottom.
Where Adria promptly tossed his bike over the side and full-body slammed on the slick planks, making the noise a mostly-flat basketball makes when you throw it against a wall.
I sat up a second to make sure he was ok, and led through the next section of singletrack.
We pulled out onto the road, and the full realization of what was ahead hit me the same way that Spanish kid hit the bridge.
Stillhouse was coming.
And so, it turned out, Was Justin Lindine.
Justin had suffered a heartbreaking mechanical on the first enduro - way back before the chute I shame-walked - and had been chasing by himself for like two hours. He caught us with a fury, and Adria (of course) jumped directly on his wheel.
We were 10 miles from the finish, half of which was truly heinous climbing, and tagging on to the double watts whammy of Frustrated Lindine and Pointy-Elbowed Soldevila seemed like a terrible idea.
A million questions and negatives bounced around in my nutrient-starved brain: what if I get dropped? Am I feeling good enough for this? I can't lose more time! Don't go too hard, you idiot. This group is way above your pay grade.
This is what I spent 20 hours a week on the trainer in February to do.
Tacking on, I tentatively sat on Justins wheel as Adria hammered away. Justin moved up, lifting the pace slightly. Ashamed, I let Adria back in behind him. The best I could do was hang on.
We took the right hand turn onto Stillhouse Hollow.
And started to climb.
And caught Alex.
Adria repeatedly attacked, briefly gapping the group and generally making me doubt almost every life-choice I had made to this point. Justin would drag himself up to his wheel, towing Alex and gapping me. I would scrape myself back into their wake just in time for the Spanish Wattage Cottage to toss another hand grenade over his shoulder.
This went on for almost 20 minutes.
Toward the top, I ran out of responses. I was forcing myself to go way beyond my reserves - my legs were cramping, my stomach felt hollow, my head hurt - but I hung on. They had a bike length, then two, then three, but I wouldn't let them drop me. Like the inevitability of death, I shadowed their march. My body was killing itself. I was cramping so bad tears were rolling down my face, and my head pounded in time with the cadence of my pedals.
I crested the top and they were gone.
Trying to recover on the descent, I tried to get my mind back in it. I was in serious trouble - something had snapped, and I felt dangerously close to passing out - so I just tucked in on the downhill and tried to clear my head and legs a little, shaking both out as my body tried to reconcile the effort I just asked it to make.
A river crossing.
Another short climb.
Turning onto another steep, grassy hill, I stood up and screamed. Loud. I'm kind of glad I was alone for that. The rain had stopped, and there was nothing to mute the explosion of anger and frustration that roared out of my spinning head. I was dropped. Fully and completely.
Furiously limping in, I attempted to push all the feelings of anger and disappointment back into the well of boiling lactic acid from whence they came. I gave everything I had, and didn't quite make it. I tried my absolute best, and hung on long after I thought I could. I did ok. Crossing the line, I was still irritated with myself, but able to balance the negative feelings with a more detached analysis of my performance, rationalizing my failure to hang with the breakthrough of pushing my body beyond the point of collapse.
In the end, Adria got about a minute on me - enough to bump me down to 7th. Alex put in a truly amazing ride - hanging on to 5th place by making it almost to the finish with two of the strongest guys in the race. And Justin - he recovered from a 20 minute mechanical to finish like 5 minutes down on the winner. For most people that would be incredible, for Justin, that's Friday afternoon. If I'm going to get crushed, I'm happy these are the guys to do it.
What a week.
I can't wait for next year.
*hahaha yeah like a screaming fast descent, a river crossing, a climb, another goddamn climb, a backwards tour of day ones camp singletrack, and some other super exciting shit I was too oxygen-deprived to notice.