Wednesday, October 22, 2003

SoulRide Arizona 2003

Sometimes the fun of mountain bike racing is not just racing. It’s the process of getting to the race; the trip, the destination and then of course, the race itself. This was true for this weekend. I redeemed some frequent flyer miles and hopped on a plane for Phoenix, Arizona to compete in the Soulride in Oracle, Arizona, a two-hour drive from Phoenix.

Two-weeks hence, I will be competing in the 3-day, 300 mile La Ruta de Los Conquistadors in Costa Rica. I am trying to get in all the preparation I can. Most of my riding has been on the road and the weather this time of year in Washington is making me less than motivated. I figured the Souldride was a good excuse to get some race-level training in - in the sun!

If you can picture the set to an epic Hollywood Western; old ghost towns, house-high cacti, abandoned rail trestles, old mines, cattle, and panoramic views of stone outcroppings - that pretty much describes this course. Epic.

The 100-mile event jumped off at 6am; there were also 60- and 30-mille loops. It was still dark and cold. I remembered the sunscreen, but had forgotten that the desert actually gets cold at night and didn’t bring anything more than the most minimal cycling attire. I shivered as I waited in the dark for the race to start. The 6am start time wasn’t so bad given that I was coming to the race with Eastern Time programmed into my body.

The race promoter set 120 of us off with both barrels of a double-barreled shotgun. We set off on a road and split into two groups. I fell off the back of the first, took the led on the second, then dropped back till we hit a gnarly single track climb. It was rocky, narrow and laden with cacti. While the other folks were walking, I took off on top of the rocks putting a nice gap between the second group and myself. I was riding solidly since I am used to riding technical terrain when it’s wet. This year I have had plenty of practice -having done every single race I’ve competed in in the rain. Well, in Arizona, it may be technical, but it’s dry and that made it seem easy.

I had some difficulty on the sandy sections of the course till I figured out the technique for riding ‘em. The sand was taking riders out left and right. I went down once and got a bad Charlie-horse on my inner thigh - which subsequently ended up hurting every time I tensed that muscle – that is to stay, every other pedal stroke.

Then, I found that if I maintained my lateral balance and weighted my body toward my back wheel, I could literally surf over the sand. After the initial single-track section, most of the race consisted of fire road until the last 10 miles. There, they threw in another single-track section along the Arizona trail presumably to either torture tired souls or make people who came 3/4 of the way across the country remember that it was single track that that they came all that way for.

At the beginning of the race, I rode with my friend Nicole, a displayed Virginian whom I met a few years back at the Shenandoah Mountain 100. Nicole is now living in Arizona and racing professionally for a Mexican mountain bike team. How cool is that?

I managed to keep up with her for a while, but we both ended up lost; once together, then separately. Then she ended up ahead of me and I didn’t see her again till the end of the race. The course was rather poorly marked into the first 30 miles. Whether that was the promoter’s fault or the fault of people pulling down the markings, I wasn’t going to let it get in my way of having a good time. Though it did cost me nearly a half hour and I must say I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of getting interdicted by the US Border Patrol. After I split off from Nicole, I rode most of the rest of 70 miles by myself.

I passed through an abandoned town that looked something more out of my travels to Guatemala than say, Arizona. There was a small store painted in bright blue with signs in Spanish. At that point a grueling 13-mile climb commenced. I felt solid, passed a couple of riders and made it to the top where there was an abandoned mine. The entrance had been cemented shut and a Buddha had been painted on the wall. I doubled back to rub his tummy as I passed for luck.

I passed through the succession of aid stations; three, four (at this point I was still on target for a solid, 9:30 pace). When I hit the fifth aid station, I had 17 miles to go, again still well below a 10 hour finish time. I kept going and going and expecting the race to end, but they must have been wrong about the 17 miles. It took me nearly an hour to get to the last ten miles of single track and then another 45 minutes or so to get through that.

I was getting really bored on the fire road and hitting the single track totally energized me. This section of the course should have been named the “cactus gauntlet”. The trail was not more than 18 inches wide and as I wending through it, I feared one wrong move and my shins would be impaled with hundred of needles. I managed to get stuck a couple of times and my legs and arms are superficially scrapped. Luckily, I didn’t go down and land my ass on one of the chair-size round cacti.

I hit the last section of road and finished in just over 10 hours, still with plenty of daylight to spare. The top time was 8:08, I finished in 10:40 in 20th place of 120 racers.

After the race I could only think of one thing: hot food. I rode two more painful miles back to the casita where I was staying on a ranch with horses and teams of humming birds. I went (in my rented “Chevy Classic”) for a “burro” at one of the only three restaurants in a town where there is not a chain store in sight.

There, I met an 83-year old waitress and Oracle native who regaled me with stories about her medical issues and her love of the New York Yankees. I didn’t have the heart to tell her where my baseball loyalties lie. She was a riot – when a man ordering carry out forgot his bag, she made a pun about “old bags” and then feigned being offended. Another man left the restaurant and when he went to pay, I caught a glimpse of his concealed handgun.

The night before the race there was a pre-race diner at the Oracle community center. There the locals, mostly old timers, stuffed us with food as if we were turkeys getting ready for Thanksgiving. I sat at a table with complete strangers and we started talking about, what else, mountain bike racing as we listened to the sounds of a two-man band. Nicole joined us and we all reveled at the sounds of the band. The singer belted out our favorite Elvis, Johnny Cash and other county tunes. The keyboardist also played trumpet – sometimes at the same time. Everything was charmingly off-key and tempo. The backdrop of the bingo board completed what was a perfect atmosphere. For the night this place had more charm than the 18th Street Lounge.

It’s funny because in all the years I’ve been racing I have thoroughly enjoyed the places that racing has brought me, but it’s taken me this long to realize that the journey and the destination are often just as much fun as the race itself.