On Sunday, Jen and I took a trip out to Matthiessen State Park to participate in the first Matthiessen Mountain Madness Race. The weather was glorious and the trees were in near peak color, making a perfect backdrop to the event. The trail system at Matthiessen is relatively new, built over the past year or so by a dedicated group of cyclists at the Illinois Valley Cycling Association (http://www.bikeiv.org). The friendly folks at IVCA organized a fun, grassroots event, very well-organized and a great course layout with tons of great swag and prizes...and only 1.5 hours away from Chicago. Their trails are open year round, so get out there and enjoy them (the usual cautions about mud apply).
Never having ridden at Matthiessen, we talked to a couple of people beforehand. All of them warned us about how technical the trails were, littered with the 3 R’s: roots, rocks, and ruts. One person warned us of a short bridge that was only a couple of inches wide. “It comes up quick, so if you’re following someone’s wheel, you’ll likely miss it. And if you miss it, you’ll definitely endo.” The other warnings concerns the rock garden: a 20 meter or so stretch of uneven loose and slick rock that runs along the Vermillion River. And finally, the big warnings were for the climb at the end: a quarter mile climb out of the river valley that takes you across a series of switchbacks, each successively steeper than the last. Man-made features, rock gardens, torturous climbs? It was going to be a fun day.
All that would have to wait. The race course began with a three-mile jaunt through the prairie. The prairie part of the course was mostly double track, softened by the rain and clobbered by horse hooves. The double track at the beginning of the course gave racers a good amount of time to sort themselves out before they entered the singletrack. It was longer than many racers expected. Some tore out of the gates in a full sprint, leaving some of their best stuff on the prairie (and on the first lap). Others settled in to a competitive pace, bracing themselves for the ride ahead. By the time we got through the prairie, the sport men had formed a lead group, a stretch of single riders, and another group at the back. I settled in to the rear of the lead group as we entered the singeltrack.
Despite the rain, the trail was in good shape. There were a couple of greasy spots throughout, but very little tire-grabbing mud. The trails were twisty, with lots of roots to clear. The roots were mostly perpendicular to the trail, which slowed me down without pushing me off the trail. There were several dips with rooted descents and steep ascents. Maintaining momentum over the roots and rocks was key to preserving the energy I’d need to clear the rocks and make the infamous climb at the end of the lap. Obstacles, like log piles, were scattered throughout the course. Some did not have clear approaches, which forced me to keep focus. Fortunately, the race organizers placed people near the sketchier obstacles to warn riders that they were coming up. This was especially important by the time I got to the tiny wooden bridge, which was little more than four inches wide over a perpendicular rut. Not much to clear, but it’d hurt if I missed it.
The notorious rock garden was as technical as everyone said it would be. Coming out of the singletrack, following a fun set of switchbacks down into the valley, the trail opened up to the river. The rocks came up quick, forcing me to slow down and keep the bike balanced. A steady combination of momentum and pedaling was necessary to keep moving through and over the rocks, some of which came as high my hubs. I got through it on my first shot and proudly headed back into the singletrack for the demanding climb ahead. After a short up and down, the climbing began, taking me up a series of long switchbacks, each steeper than the last. I almost left breakfast on the trail about 90% up the climb. Topping off the climb was a short, steep, slick section that sapped the last of whatever I had left in your legs before spitting me back out onto the prairie. Here we go again.
I continued to hold my pace through the second lap. Heading in to the third lap, I lost sight of the lead group. Two riders lined up behind me, one from sport and another from the expert race. We planned to keep a strong pace and try to close the gap between us and the lead group with one lap to go. I held my position through the prairie and into the singletrack where one of the race coordinators shouted out that we were close to the lead group and in the top ten. With that, I kept my pace quick, but conservative, knowing to save something for the last climb, which would take us to the finish line. I didn’t want the two riders behind me to tire me out and then pass me there.
My strategy worked—for a while anyway. With about two miles to go, I attacked a dip aggressively, knowing that the climb out of it was slick and eroded from all the racers. I pinch-flatted on the rocks at the bottom of the dip. As I heard the air rushing out of my tire, I incredulously asked if that was me or the rider behind. It was me. I pulled over and let the rest of the group by. I tried to patch my tire, but in my haste, I didn’t do it very well. The snake bite was pretty big and the patch didn’t hold. Special thanks to John from Wheel Fast for giving me his air cartridge, even though I blew the patch. I didn’t want to give up on the last MTB race of the season, so I flipped my bike back on its wheels and ran it to the finish line. I lost third place in my age group and ninth overall, but I finished the race and closed out the season with a blast. Jen, on the other hand, was the HAC hero of the day. She rocked the course and finished strong, taking first in Sport women and earning multiple prizes and taking home much swag.