Race Report: Gnar Weasels Shredeth

The last time I entered a mountain bike race, it was the late 80's and I wasn't quite 30 years old yet. My bike was a lime green Diamondback Ascent EX with only one modification: the Schrader valve caps were matching lime green dice. Judging by this photo, I'm pretty sure it was also too small for me.

Can I stop yet? Please?
Although I wore bike shorts, gloves and a (bulbous) helmet, the rest of my kit consisted of a t-shirt and a pair of worn out Chuck Taylors.

I had absolutely no concept of what "training" really was and the two laps I did around the woods in Simsbury, CT that day on the not-very-technical two-track fire road were pure agony. I probably last rode that, or any, MTB somewhere around 1993.

Flash forward about 20 years...
Now I'm in my early 50's and fumbling through the sixth year of my third "cycling career." I finally achieved one of my long-term goals: to podium in a road race. After that, work and family issues took precedence and so I had to recalibrate the focus of what bike time I actually had the luxury of getting.

I took another look at the mountain bike I picked up for $100 and a six pack from a fellow club member a few years ago. It's a ~1995 Stumpjumper Comp. I would noodle about on it a few times a year, maybe a little more in the mid-to-late summer as cross season approached but never really thought I'd ever race it.

I refer to it as the "jankmobile." The Manitou fork on it was pretty well spent (hard drops on the trail would jam the front tire up against the cross brace and, well, stop the wheel when you really NEEDED it to roll. The left crank used to loosen up sometimes if I was riding on particularly jarring terrain. It's probably a touch too big for me. No matter what I do, something seems to always be rattling on it.

Probably the only 26'er with rim brakes and tubes in the race yesterday.
But I have fun when I ride this bike, LOTS OF FUN. Maybe the jankiness itself adds to the fun, those worrisome rattles may make it seem like I'm going faster than I really am.

This doesn't mean that I don't wish for a modern hardtail 29'er, but things being what they are, this is my mountain bike.

Meanwhile, my Twitter feed was increasingly populated with chatter about a new upcoming mountain bike race. Usually, I put any MTB race announcements directly into the background but for some reason, I was paying attention to the buzz about this one. It didn't hurt that it was being organized by a couple of the people I respect the most in the New England bike racing community.

And it had "weasels" in the name. I've raced both Night Weasels Cometh and Ice Weasels Cometh, those races are always a blast: how could I go wrong?

But the race course was being billed as "mile-for-mile, the hardest flat mountain bike racing you can do in New England." The other weasel-flavored races are cyclocross races.

As close-of-registration date approached, I began wondering a) could I be competitive in a novice MTB race on a difficult course? b) could my bike survive it? c) could I endure the sidelong looks my old jalopy might surely receive?

I put in some solid miles riding a variety of terrain, both solo and with others who were much better than me. This included quite a bit of "practice crashing" or as I like to put it, "pre-injuring." Just to keep tabs on that pain threshold, you know. Also, there's less leg to shave if it's partly covered in bandages.

I stuck my neck out and reg'd the Wednesday before the race. I moved the weeks old Maxxis Ardent from the rear to the front then put a Maxxis Advantage on the rear, per Brian MacInnis (JRA Cycles) recommendation.

Still, I had that totally spent Manitou on the front, if I raced on that I could DIE, or something. Brian didn't have one that would fit my bike in stock, so Thursday I order up a RockShox Recon and have it shipped overnight.

Friday morning has me down on the racecourse, tagging along with Colin, Thom, and Kevin as they begin to put up the course markings. Colin mentions that they could use me as a "canary in a coal mine" to test the gnarliness of the course: novice old guy on a 26'er with tubes and a spent fork. If even I could get around the course without freaking out or cracking my skull, then maybe everything would be ok on race day.

"Do you have access to a staple gun?"
As Colin and I made our way around the course, he'd occasionally ask what I thought of a particular feature, if I thought it was too dangerous or scary. At one rocky-climby bit, I actually surprised him (and myself) that I cleared it. After finishing the loop, I knew I was in for some trouble, but maybe not as much as I imagined. Our putt-putt tour had me dabbing A LOT, walking up climbs A LOT and falling once. A pretty typical MTB experience for me.

Yet Ryan opined, "You're probably the only dude doing Gnar Weasels with rim brakes. And you'll probably beat a lot of people."

What's this thing for?
Friday at 4:30pm, the thing arrives and I'm panicking cuz my daughter went off to a sleepover at a friends which means it's "date night" so I gotta get this fork on the bike FAST. Luckily, I own a steerer tube cutting guide and am an expert in its use because of the ONE OTHER TIME I needed to cut a steerer tube.

Measure twice, cut once. Assemble. Go to check the pressure in the fork and didn't realize the gauge was also the pump you use to pressurize it with and that button next to the dial is not for taking a reading but for bleeding off excess air. After a moment of panic realizing that neither my bike pump nor air compressor would fit AND completely DE-pressurizing the fork in my attempts to use those devices, I figure it out and get the thing dialed.

Should I bother mentioning the condition the headset bearings were in? I won't, you can guess. I put my faith in grease.

Clean up, off to a lovely evening on Somerville. Two beers only and to bed a bit late. Up nice and early Saturday morning to make my way to Foxboro.

This bike oozes GNAR. Or maybe it merely leaks it.
I arrive on site and am directed to a ROCK STAR parking spot very close to the registration tents - oh, but I'm also right next to the porta-potties. Well, the location would certainly guarantee almost everyone would pass by my base of operations for one reason or another.

I got kitted up and set out to do a little pre-ride, it was now 8:40 which allowed plenty of time for my 9:30 start. I was amazed at how much value there was in that ride I took around the course the day before, I was rolling over stuff with a fair amount of certainty even given the fact that it was much wetter due to some early morning rain. Granted, I was't going full bore yet.

When I noticed the 2 mile marker, I decided I really didn't want to ride all the way back up the course and have a 4 mile warm up... where was that shortcut back to the start I heard about? I check the time: it's now 9:10 - CRAP! I guess I was poking along a lot more slowly than I realized. I picked up the pace, kept going and finally got to the shortcut back, at about 3.5 miles in. The shortcut was a double-track gravel/rock road that was NOT flat, resulting in more pre-race effort than I felt I could afford but I had to suck it up if I wanted to get back.

Once back to my car, I noticed that my headset was a little loose. That's what I get for a last minute component upgrade. Of course the first thing I do is make it too tight and I can't seem to get it to loosen up. Time's running out! I swallow my pride, look around and ask Mike Wissell for some quick help, which he graciously gave. I roll down to the start.

After a few minutes of wandering about among the scrum of cyclists, some order is introduced by Colin's bull-horn enhanced announcements. The Sport fields are lined up one-by-one and started as I found my place among the Novices in the back. All the while, I'm trying to decide whether or not I should burn a match on the section of paved road we have to climb before we actually see any dirt.

Colin decides the 40+ and 50+ Novices should start together, I line up 2nd row, and the next thing I know, I'm clipped in and stomping my way up the hill and passing almost everyone else. I knew this was not likely to last.

Left turn then right onto the dirt and suddenly I'm about to hit a little 2 foot hump across the course. There's a bunch of people there and it's obvious they are expecting a little show at this spot. I pick up the pace a little more and try to catch some air as I go over. I see a flash go off in the corner of my eye and holler, "I hope you got that!"

Benjamin Stephens did, in fact, snap a photo. I think he captured the look that remained on my face for most of the rest of the race (more of his photos here):

Wh-wh-wh-WOAH! (photo by Benjamin Stephens)
Immediately, I'm bounding along the tops of a series of baby heads, hearing my chain slap and the squish of my new fork as I go. There's no one in front of me at first and I'm dimly aware of at least one person behind me.

Even though everything is going by me so fast that most details are not registering in my consciousness, I do recognize certain features from the day before and do my best to take advantage of that knowledge. As soon as I process one of these rocks or roots or ramps, I'm onto the next thing.

Before long, I caught up to one of the 30+ novices, who started 30 seconds (?) before us, then another, then I caught a couple of 30+ Novices I KNEW. I tooled along on Joel's wheel for a while, passed him,  then slammed my bike RIGHT INTO a tree.

Luckily, I saw it coming, was slowing and only lost enough time for Joel to pass me back. I stayed a bit behind him this time so I could take in the lines (silly roadie that I am, I tend to ride much too close on the MTB - which only leads to trouble). Sadly, it was about this time that I felt my headset start to rattle a bit. Damn. I wondered how long I could go before causing a) permanent damage to the bike b) DEATH.

All it took was one thought of my wife and daughter hunkered down at home, awaiting my return from battle for me to stop, fish out my multi-tool, and once again, tighten the headset.

Suddenly, we popped out of the forest onto some two-track gravel, the left turn guided by a row of Harpoon Summer beers. I declined the offer of one but took a cup of water and a piece of bacon that some guy passed me as he ran uphill alongside.

I'm pretty sure Chip was behind this. (Thom Parsons photo)
Soon after that, I passed Joel for good.

The next rider I came upon was Ed, one of the 40+ Novices. He and I would be race buddies for the rest of the loop. He definitely had more SKILLZ than me and was able to traverse much that I couldn't. But when there was a clear not-too-technical line, I could OUT-WATT him and get by. It also seemed that I could put a little more pace into those sections where we were both doing walk/run-a-bike.

Connecting with him was the best medicine for the rest of this race for me. He kept me pushing hard when he was ahead, kept me humble when I thought I was king of the world, and seemed grateful when I gasped out kudos when he cleared some difficult section.

Like trying to capture stormy seas from a boat, you just can't convey the total GNAR you are seeing here in this photo.
(Thom Parsons photo).
The last third of the race was downright fun. Since all the super difficult sections were behind me and no one was chasing me down from behind, I was a lot less nervous about my bike handling. This let me loosen up and enjoy what passed for the "flowier" sections of the course. There were a few grinding little climbs to do and some micro-gnar to traverse, but the worst was behind me.

I rolled across the finish exhausted but somehow able to ride on back to my car to clean myself up and get ready for some picture taking.

Pretty clean considering all that mud I steered right into.
After a few pickles and a beer, I realized I had absolutely no idea how well I did. I pedaled back up to the scoring tent and asked Christin for my time and for some reason, I didn't ask HOW I finished. I attribute this to Gnar Weasel Zombification. For quite a while, I wandered around, one minute feeling pretty good, the next completely out of it.

A little while later, the results were posted: I won!

Very nice! But there was work yet to do. I hoisted 40lbs of camera and lighting gear on my back, got BACK ON MY BIKE and rode down to the aid station and then about 20 yards backwards along the course (my legs were all "WTF?") and set up to take some photos of the Expert and Elites as they came by.

Two Pocket Wizard triggered strobes and a slightly wide angle lens seemed to be the right call, but I need a model to stand where the riders would come through so I could be sure everything was set up correctly.

Moments later, Gerry Finnegan, owner of the Washington Square Tavern, comes ambling along. I've known Gerry since his days at Matt Murphy's in Brookline Village and knew he was a big bike racing supported but was floored to see him out there.

Graciously and humorously, he does everything I ask him to do as I get things dialed.

Gerry demonstrates the "Irish Carry".
Nice, to me, the lighting and surroundings give the photos a little hint of Lord of the Rings.

OK, down to business. For the next hour or so, in two locations, I simultaneously get some really good photos AND provide sustenance to tens of thousands of mosquitos.

Full gallery of photos is here.

At some point, I just couldn't stand the mosquitos anymore. They laughed at the poisons I was smearing on myself every 5 minutes and kept chewing away at my flesh, so I packed up and slumped my way back to the scoring tent to get some shots of the finishers.

Colin kept mentioning that they would be doing the podium ceremony "any minute now," but as it turns out, it began before I realized it. When I got there, Thom was already making his way through awarding honors to the Expert fields. Once the Elite fields were recognized, I meekly asked for my medal, was handed one along with an armload of swag and then (not so meekly, cuz it may never happen again) passed my camera off to Thom for the first photo ever of me raising my arms in victory.

Chicken Dinnah!

A functional award!
Major kudos for the day must go out to the race organizers, Kevin, Colin and Thom. They did a fantastic job of putting this brand new race together. They created terrific buzz about how challenging the course would be while at the same time promoting how much fun racers would have. As the day went on, everything seemed to be in complete control and everyone there was riding high.

Heroes of the day.
For me, it was an opportunity to try a form of bike racing that was, for all intents and purposes, new to me. I got to get a little peek into another corner of the local bike racing world and see where the overlap with road and CX was - and wasn't. I got to meet a lot of great people, introduce myself to a bunch of "internet only" friends in person and solidify friendships I already had.

I'll be talking about this race for a long time to come.

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