The last words I heard before biffing on a downhill section in a race earlier today.
If you follow the blog, you can probably guess that I do not race my bike. I tried a cyclocross event last September and blew up on the first lap and pulled off the course as a DNF. It was pretty humiliating but not unexpected, as I prefer to take a more leisurely pace when cycling and devote no time to interval training to make myself faster or stronger. I just like to go places on the bike; I’m not in a particular hurry.
I could not resist today’s race,however, based on its description and pictures from last year’s event that I saw on an internet forum. Mountain bike biathlon. Three words, mashed into one in the form of the name of the event. It’s not a public event that I know of and in the interest of keeping it private, I will not name the event or where it took place. Let’s just say it involved more than 350 miles of driving and was deep in the woods on someone’s private property.
Here’s the basic premise. Ride your mountain bike, get off, shoot at a target with an air gun, and repeat until you want to vomit. It’s like cyclocross but with a rifle. If you miss the target, you take a penalty lap in a field before returning to the main course. The first one across the line wins. Just like ‘cross, there are spectators cheering you on and rattling cow bells.
I haven’t trained for ‘cross this year, so this event seemed within my grasp since it wouldn’t involve a lot of mounts, dismounts and run-ups. All I had to do was remember how to shoot a gun, something I haven’t done since high school. Oh, and I had to get a gun, but that’s a story for another post.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been sneaking off to my own private BB gun range to practice with the Red Ryder. It turns out that I’m still a pretty competent marksman when sitting in a yard with a heart rate of 66. It’s different, however, when your heart rate is 186 and you’re hyperventilating. It turns out I should have devoted a little more effort to the bike portion; in particular, doing some intervals to extend my exercise tolerance. More on that in a moment.
I left my home this morning with a good feeling that I would not be crushed or forced to quit during this race. My trusty Garmin took me on a long and winding route on secondary roads through remote areas of New York and other states. But I didn’t mind, since the leaves are turning and I had plenty of time to get to the “grounds” as they are known. I arrived as the host, I’ll call him “Ed,” was setting up the course and putting out the targets. I got my race number and affixed it to the Moots.
I’ve never met Ed before today. I saw a post by him on a web forum and figured it was worth the trip to see what the event was all about. The first thing I noticed was how genuinely enthusiastic he was as each rider arrived. He greeted each rider by name and thanked them for coming to the grounds. The internet is a wonderful thing (sometimes) for bringing people together.
As more and more people arrived, I decided I should take a practice lap to see the course. I didn’t do that last year during my failed attempt at cyclocross and I was determined not to let that happen again. You shouldn’t be seeing the race course for the first time as you are racing on it.
I suited up and pointed the Moots toward the start of the course. The start included a slog through a tall grass field and then immediately turned uphill on a gravel road. By uphill, I mean a steep hill at least by Long Island standards. I was cooked from a cardio standpoint before I made it half way up the road. Remember, this was my practice lap.
After the hill there was a sharp left turn where you had to navigate around some pretty big mounds of dirt before going into the woods. The wooded section was mostly downhill with some patches of mud and one particularly “groovy” section where the center of the groove was rocky and muddy. During both of my practice laps, I determined that I should be on the inner edge of this turn so as to not get pulled into the rocks and mud which looked treacherous to my eyes. From this section, it was a few more yards before the course was back in the main grounds, a couple of sharp turns and then a dismount to shoot.
The practice laps were helpful. I realized if I had any chance of finishing I would need to walk part of that first hill or risk blowing up completely. I wasn’t going to win on speed, that was for sure.
The race was divided into two heats for the men. Given my number, I was in the first heat. The race starts with each rider shooting a balloon (moving in the air). You don’t get to ride until you break the balloon. Much to my surprise I hit the balloon straightaway, despite the fact that I did not practice shooting at moving objects. Off I went on the bike.
I hit the uphill section and was completely winded by the 1/2 way point, so I dismounted and walked. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a couple of other riders do the same. Good news. I might not be last.
I cleared the wooded section nicely, except for maybe being too conservative with my speed, and arrived at the shooting line tachycardic and hyperventilating. I dropped to my knee, tried to control my breathing and squeezed off a shot at the poker chip-sized targets. Miss. Penalty lap in the grassy field, with Ed standing at the entrance to the lap cheering riders on.
Back to the uphill section of the course for the second of four laps and my body feels just as it did last September when I pulled off the ‘cross course. I’m wheezing but don’t have asthma. I can feel all four chambers of my heart trying to pound their way out of my chest. My rifle is swinging all around my torso because my improvised sling sucks. My body is telling me to quit after this lap, but my brain doesn’t want its ego hurt. As I look around, I see other people dismounting again and I am encouraged that I’m not the only one suffering a bit. Plenty of riders are passing me, panting and fussing with their slings, too. I make it through the woods and back to the firing line. I miss a second time and get another go at the penalty lap. Same deal on the third lap, except this time I stop at the top of the hill to chat with another guy.
Fourth lap. I’m beyond struggling but at least I know I’ll finish and I won’t be last as long as I keep my wits about me. I come to the first of the muddy sections and decide to try a different approach since the one I’d been using was torn up. I clear it without a problem. Now onto the “groovy” section and I’m having second thoughts about using my same approach. I decide to stay the course. The crowds are loud now because it’s the final lap. I’m toward the very rear of the group and some ladies shout “Bring it on home” as encouragement. “Home” is the last thing I hear before crashing onto my left shoulder, my rear wheel having caught the edge of a rock and slipped out from under me. I picked myself up, noticed my clavicle hurt, hoped that it wasn’t broken and pointed the bike toward the grounds. As I dismounted to shoot, I thought “this is the end either way so I might as well take my time.” I dropped to my knee, fired and hit the target.
^^ The spot where I crashed
I have no idea what place I finished other than it was not good enough to compete in the finals and I was not last across the finish line. I hit two out of five targets, took three out of four possible penalty laps and crashed. But I finished.
I stayed to watch the second mens’ race, the women’s race, which included a tandem team, and the finals. The winners received dye cast medals made by Ed. If there were 50 people in attendance, there were 50 smiling faces at the end of the event. Some riders have been doing this for years, based on the amount of forethought they put into the gun rigs. A few people had air mattresses to lay upon while shooting prone; one fellow brought a piece of furniture to use as a gun rest.
I learned a couple of things, which I’ll list here for anyone competing in a bike biathlon:
1. Have a good sling and practice riding with it. I made mine from an inner tube but it failed miserably because it kept swinging around my torso. The key is to have some mechanism to strap it to your torso like a belt, or put over your shoulders like a knapsack.
2. Bring a shooting aid such as a gun rest. One guy had a small metal tripod made like a tent stake. Other riders copied the design using tree branches.
3. Practice marksmanship after doing intervals or some activity to get the heart and respiratory rate up. Shooting easy. Shooting while panting, not so easy.
Racing is miserable while it is happening. I really wanted to quit and, at the same time, part of me would not let me quit. Racing is a helluva lot of fun when the race is over and you can step back and watch others do it and reflect on your own efforts.
I’ll be back next year if they’ll have me. It was certainly a unique life experience and a great deal of fun.