Racing with the Winona (off-road) riders

I pulled into the Village at Winona Lake with enough time to change, dawdle a little, and warm up before the race. I wanted to make sure I had time to check out the Fat and Skinny Tire Festival taking place that weekend. Among the bike related fun, the festival featured a road crit and a BMX/freestyle quarterpipe demo. People wandered through the town; music filled the streets; vendors sold kettle corn; and a dejected clown sat on a curb contemplating his unappreciated talents (and in all likelihood plotting his clowny revenge). I missed all the fanfare. Instead, I warmed up for my race with a panicked search for hydraulic brake pads.

Since I still had braking power at the finish line at Sylvan Island, I assumed I still had meat on my pads. My bike groaned and squealed as I rode it around the parking lot, disabusing me of any comfort that I could actually stop if I needed to during the race. That sent me into town for a bike shop. The kind people at "Trailhouse Village Outdoor store": hooked me up with a set of pads right quick (thanks, guys!). With that, I was off to the starting line.

Rain throughout the week threatened to flood the course and turn it into another "Sylvan Island.": The grass at the starting line was a little soft and slow, but it was not a harbinger of things to come. The rain blessed the trail with the grippy, loamy surface that singletrack dreams are made of. Sandy sections of the course were damp enough to stay firm. The dust was subdued by latent dampness. The course itself was fast and twisty singletrack with a sprinkling of obstacles to make it interesting. Climbs were long enough to get my heart rate up, making descents fun enough to keep it there. My heart rate monitor was pretty much pinned throughout the two nine-mile laps the Cat 2 riders were scheduled to finish.

Knowing I had 20 miles in front of me, I took the start a little too leisurely and ended up the class caboose heading into the singletrack. I am pretty new to racing and Cat 2 is certainly aspirational (if not foolhardy) for me, but my pride could not abide being last. I made my first push early and quickly overtook several riders. About two miles into the race, my chain jumped off into the spokes. I pulled off the trail to put it back. As soon as I pedaled again, it jumped back off. Not wanting to mess around with derailleur adjustments trailside, I forced it into a place that kept the chain on the cassette. As I tinkered, I watched the three guys I passed go right by me. Damn.

Having rigged my derailleur into place, I got back on my bike and took off, intent on restoring my rightful position in the group. I learned that I am no MacGyver as I hit the next climb where I realized I lost the use of my four highest gears. Climbing for the remaining 15 miles was going to be a slog and without my big gears, recovery would be compromised as well. I contemplated dropping out, but the course was way too much fun to not finish at least a lap. I pressed on and was rewarded with more of the twists and turns that I love so much about being on fast, grippy singletrack. Remember the speeder bike chase scene in the Return of the Jedi? It was like that, but without the Ewoks, Stormtroopers, and laser fire.

Slaloming through (sometimes caroming off) trees and over logs, bumps, and jumps made it so much fun that when I hit the drop off near the end of my first lap, I decided to make a go of the next one. My second lap was definitely slower than the first. My legs burned and quivered as I powered up the hills. With five miles left in my last lap, I got a second wind and picked up my pace, ultimately earning myself a dignified sixth in my age category. Happy and tired, I left before the clown rampage.

 - Paul-Brian McInerney