Saturday, March 1, 2008

Mountain Bike Championships Rewind

Collegiate mountain bike national championships are where the best of the best collegiate mountain bike racers go to compete against everyone else in the country at the collegiate level. Like road or cross nationals, most all of the riders at the event are expert or pro racers outside of college, so it facilitates some fierce competition, but being in college it also brings out some fierce partying, and the weekend before Haloween, many people arrived from all over the country to make a strong showing in many different fashions for the first time in nearby Banner Elk where Lees McRae College was for the first time ever, hosting the race.

The weekend started out on Thursday with all of the teams getting into town and the athletes getting registered and checked in at Lees McRae's campus, then it was the "mandatory" rider meeting in their auditorium where they went over the usual stuff you would expect to hear about being prompt, where to be when, and what not to do etc, over the course of the weekend. After the meeting, people parted ways, most went to Sugar Mountain where most people had opted to set up lodging, the few of us from Appalachian State headed back down the road to Boone.

Racing in the southeast United States, or the "dirty south" as many of us call it, is quite different than racing anywhere else in the country. We don't have the same type of mountains and rocks, we have a different kind of dirt, and a different kind of mud. Although we were in the middle of an exceptional drought that had been going on for months at the time of nationals, I wasn't worried, for since there was a bike race in Banner Elk, and the Downhill part of it was held at Sugar Mountain Resort, I was almost positive that it would rain. I predicted this months ahead of time and, sure enough, for the four days prior to the event, we had more rain than we recieved in the past couple months.

The cross country course at Lees McRae was a little different than the typical national championship course. Many times, the races are held at a ski resort which usually means alot of climbing on a fireroad and then a technical singletrack descent. This year, the race was held on the campus of LMC, therefore, it was a tecnhical course both up and down, and the newness of the course, combined with the amazing amount of technical features, and the rain, provided some of the slickest mud most of the racers had ever seen. There were many people that posted up great times from running a good majority of the race. To get an idea of how muddy it was, more than one person was seen dunking their bike in the millpond at the end of each lap in order get the mud off so they could keep racing. The highlight of the last lap was a rider completing his final lap, after going for a swim, stopping at the "breakfast and refreshments" tent, and changing to a 16'' wheeled bike with riser bars on it which he proceeded to ride/run with for nearly a lap and pedal across the finish line. Hundreds of people were yelling for him, it was awesome, it was collegiate racing at it's finest. App State had strong finishes in the XC race with Robert Jameson on the podium with a 5th place and Alex Hannah right behind him in 6th. Jerid Gooding came in 15th just a few minutes later after an incredibly strong ride throughout the entire race.

Next up was Downhill qualifiers. The way that the qualification runs were set up was pretty relaxed and made it easy on the riders. You just show up, tell the official your number and go. The course was quite the opposite. Everyone from around here is used to racing the course in the mud, and knows it well wet or dry, fall brings in a new variable....tree droppings. Leafs were everywhere, they all seemed to come down in the rain and wind. They were slick enough and thick enough that the town of Sugar Mountain was using snow plows to clear the roads. This made the already technical and treacherous downhill course even more gnarly. The upper entrance to the famed "Donnovan's Dungeon" section of the course was closed off after people were having trouble walking down it, and probably less than 10 people on the mountain, most of us being local, could cleanly ride it. The old classic, or sport course entrance to the dungeon was decided on instead the morning of qualifiers. This was alot of pressure off of alot of people, but the course was still gnar. People were sliding, falling, sliding, falling more, and having alot of trouble everywhere, especially in one section under the lift. It was really a matter of trusting your tires, if you could trust them, and getting off the brakes and letting it rip, because soon as you lost momentum, you were down. Being that qualifying only determined your start order, everyone went hard, but saved some for Saturday, because getting hurt on Friday would get you nowhere. Robert Jameson wins the most awesome award for using the qualifying run as his first ever ride on the course in boots, a cross country helmet, no pads, and on a borrowed bike. He came up short on the creek gap and had to go fishing for the bike, but still finished out his run.

Saturday was race day for Downhill and Short Track. Downhill was first. At 7am we were at Sugar ready to go, my teammates had got my bike clean and working near perfectly, and everyone was getting psyched up to race, however it was about 40 degrees, very foggy, and very wet, so the race officials decided to postpone for a while. Not being really certain of the time, we sat at the top of Sugar and instead of doing the usual warmup, I decided to sit in the car with the heat on full blast because it was misterable outside. By the time the women went and we were up, I was more than ready to go, I was not really warmed up but just wanted to get down the mountain, fast as possible, in one piece because it was pretty miserable at the top. Robert went off, then a while later Scott Phillips went, after that I was soon up, and Michael Thomas was near the end of the line after posting an impressive qualifying time. The fog was thick at the top and I definitely had to take it slow. I was stunned in the woods about four seconds into the race to hear our biggest fans, Mulestar and John Grant getting their yell on, and from then I was pretty pumped and dropped the hammer all I could in the fog. I got through the most technical section in my opinion, "Newton's Corner," and it was onto the rock, where Dane from Lees McRae was holding the typical grab the dollar in your race run challenge. I opted out, having been riding clean so far and was further motivated by the 25-30 people standing there screaming at the top of their lungs as I plummeted down a sketchy, fast, wet, steep rockface onto the wide open slopes for a short break before the fast and technical woods and ski lift section. I rode clean through all of that, and pinned the section under the ski lift by where alot of folks from ASU were standing yelling just before the chute into the "Lizard's Lane" section of the trail. On through all of that and out onto the ski slopes for a final sprint for the finish. I came across completely exhausted and out of breath and was in 2nd place. I held onto that for a few more riders then the fog got thinner and the times got faster as the fastest qualifiers were getting optimal conditions for their race runs. The times were getting alot faster and we were all wondering what Mike would pull out being he knew this course well and was looking for the "W". He ended up in an impressive 5th place, on the podium, with a crash where he had to retrieve his bike and lose all of his momentum. I ended up in 15th, Scott got 19th after having a little trouble in a couple places, and Robert, shaved over two minutes off his first run, posting a very competitive time on the world class downhill track, pretty solid for an xc racer.

The short track was next, everyone was pretty much exhausted at this point, having either raced that day or the day before. App State had a good showing with Robert coming in 6th and Jerid in the top 20. Dave and Alex both put in a great first few laps at the front, but the exhaustion from the grueling day before, and some unwanted bike problems seemed to catch up with them as well as many of the other top riders and pull them down. The course was not very technical and even saw one racer from NC State show up on a cyclocross bike.

Saturday night was the awards banquet at Sugar Mountain. The party atmosphere was in the air, people were in costumes, sprits were flying high, and several times, food was flying higher. Awards were given out and Appalachian was on the podium two times. Everyone, especially Lees McRae showed full support of our local riders as the only team that got more volume out of a podium would be of course, Lees McRae. It was out of control, but everyone quieted down and showed more respect than at any other collegiate event for speaker Christopher Herndon, who recently won National Dual Slalom Championships and placed 3rd in the downhill championship race at Mt. Snow Vermont, was once in the same spot we were, racing at Collegaite Nationals. He spoke for a few minutes about racing, what it means to race, and some other important things that I'm pretty sure every collegiate racer there took to heart. It was a pretty good speech and it was awesome to see the amount of respect that the hundreds of people in that room have for him because of not only the way he races, but the way that he doesn't try to intimidate or act "better" than everyone else, but will take the time to talk to, and hang out, like a normal person, with anyone he is around.

After the awards, the parties ensued. The famed naked crit location was determined after awhile, and several people decided to participate, hundreds more watched, and as the police rolled up to that, the parties went elsewhere. The main partying went on at a house near sugar for about twenty minutes until the police showed up. They didn't really know what to do, having never had to deal with that many people at once before, but it was decided that the location should be moved in the best intrests of everyone involved, so the party went on to several other locations throughout the night.

Sunday morning was dual slalom racing. At this point, everyone except the top racers competing on Sunday and a few select other people were exhausted from either racing or partying too much the night before. Qualifying took a long long time, and racing took almost as long. By the end of the afternoon, the races were getting very tight and the racing was getting exciting to watch. Dane provided more entertainment by having the dollar challenge going of course and had his megaphone he reacquired the night before back in his hands heckling nearly everyone that pedaled by the last turn. At the end of the day, Scott had raced well, but run after run finally caught up to him and he went down in one of the later rounds. Mike raced well and ended up 5th once again, and once again on the podium. Geoff from ETSU took the win, not partying the night before and getting alot of sleep seemed to pay off.

At the end of the weekend, ASU was well represented. With both Michael and Robert on the podium two times each (Robert also got 5th in the individual omnium) and a handfull of other very impressive results, Collegiate Mountain Bike Nationals went pretty well. Everyone that raced had alot of fun and everyone that came out and watched seemed to have just as much, if not more fun watching all the mayhem and incredible racing that went on over the course of the weekend. Next year promises more of the same and even fiercer competition as everyone in the sport progresses more and more. All in all, Collegiate Nationals is an event that anyone who participates in will likely remember as one of the best times of their college carreer and a high point in their life as hundreds of people gather in one place with one purpose: to ride their bike fast, and most importantly, to have fun.

-AppState Cycling