(Almost) Bursting at Sunburst

I spent my summer vacation in the mountains—the Eastern Sierras to be exact—backpacking, follow by some mountain biking at Mammoth Ski Resort. Biking at Mammoth is “lift-assisted”: you take a scenic gondola ride up to the summit and ride down. So when I got to Sunburst Ski Area on Sunday for the WORS race, I was happy to see that they, too, had lifts. I quickly found out, however, that nothing about the day was going to be “lift-assisted.”

The course was mowed into the side of a hill with some intermittent singletrack sprinkled throughout. It was wide open and bright. The promoters called it a spectator’s dream. I’m glad the weather was perfect, as I imagine this course to be hellish if much warmer. The climbing begins 1/4 mile from the starting line with switchbacks up the side of the hill. The switchbacks level off a bit into some wooded double-track, which gets increasingly steeper as it narrows into singletrack. I was breathing pretty heavily as I entered the woods. My chest was heaving by the time I finished the climb through the singletrack and darted into an alpine cornfield. The course reentered a short burst of singletrack again before spitting me out onto the front of the hill. Most of the rest of the course was a wide, mowed path through grass. The grass was ankle and knee high as switchbacks took me down the other side of the hill, leading to some neck-high grasses as I sped through the flat areas at the foot. Then it was around the parking lots, through some brief singletrack areas and switchbacks partly up the other side of the hill. The course then traversed the hill back to the starting point.

My lungs were in pretty good shape from spending time at altitude while on vacation, but my legs were pretty shaky after the first lap. Two more to go. The second time up the hill was pretty torturous for a flatlander like myself. I thought my race was over as I entered the singletrack portion of the climb, when my lungs told my stomach to jettison breakfast. Fortunately, my stomach refused and I finished the climb. I smiled thinking that I only had to do this one more time and settled in for a solid lap.

On this one, I turned up the heat through the singletrack, which was minimally technical, and went full throttle on the descents. My vacation downhilling and freeriding paid off as I flicked the traction control switch on my bike and sped down the hill in full-travel mode. I ran into a couple of bottlenecks in the singletrack areas, as some riders that climbed like goats floundered in the technical stuff. Unfortunately, their weaknesses canceled out my strengths: the singletrack was too tight for me to pass. By the time we got through the tight twisty stuff, there was another climb ahead. The third time around, while not a charm, was more like the second than the first.

They say that races are won on the climbs. And they are right. While it was a blast bombing the switchbacks down the hill, I lost too much time on the climbs and finished 18th out of 25 in my category. I drowned my sorrows with local suds and Toffalo Wings (vegan Buffalo Wings) at the Palomino in Milwaukee, where “if it’s good, it’s better fried.” Not exactly part of my training plan for better climbing, but the perfect way to close a fun day of racing.

 -Paul-Brian McInerney