The Wilderness 101-
Something that I’ve discovered over this summer of long, long mountain bike races; One hundred miles is a long time on the mountain bike. 100K is so much more civilized, so much more manageable. Inevitably, over the course of a hundred miler, there is the point where I’ve waited for what seems like hours to ask someone with a bike computer how far we’ve gone. At the Wilderness 101 in State College PA, I waited so long to ask anyone knowing that the longer I asked, the better the answer would sound.
I waited until after the start climb, which starts as a paved country road before turning to dirt and ends up being almost 20 min of steady hard effort right out of the blocks. I waited until after the second climb of the day, one I remembered fondly from the TS Epic Stage race just a few months ago. When the climb went from dirt to double rack I decided to get the fireworks started and put in the first real dig of the day. I rode solo over the top of the climb and the fast and sketchy descent through the tall grass of the double-track descent. I knew that chances were we would hit the bottom of the descent and then turn right onto an interminable dirt road climb just like in the Epic, but I was getting tired of the big group we had rolling along before then- so why not?
I didn’t really have a chance to think about asking w how far along we were on that next dirt road climb because as soon as the group caught me, much reduced at this point, Christian Tanguy put in a surge and I was the only one who seemed to want to follow. The next few minutes passed by painstakingly slowly as I lost focus on most of the world beyond the wheel in front of me and my own breathing. When we finally did crest the top the only consolation was that the group was smaller yet again. For a while we rolled along in relative cohesion, making a fast paceline on the lush and secluded backcountry dirt roads of PA. I considered asking Jeremiah (Bishop) how far along we were at this point, but an upcoming aid station distracted me for the moment. After a regroup we started to climb a subtle drag of 2-4% for miles and once again Tanguy moved to the front and set up his trademark spin. Soon the road kicked from its subtle climbing grade to a more insidious series of ramps and switchbacks, and still, Tanguy drilled it on the front with me glued to his wheel wondering just how long the climb could go on. The salt pooled in the corners of my eyes, and once again the world disappeared in a hazy contraction of my focus to the piece of ground just a few feet in front of my bike. After one more brutal kick there was light at the end of the tunnel with a right hand turn headed into some singletrack…Then Jeremiah attacked.
The next period of the race, maybe it was a half-hour, maybe more, were devoted to trying to chase one of the best mountain bikers in the business- first down a hairy rock-strewn descent that left my arms feeling like pieces of lead, and then on a series of fireroads. The killer pace set by Tanguy had reduced the group down to just four, and now that Jeremiah had decided to take a flyer, it was just Tanguy, Jonathan Schottler and myself left to pursue. I had the vague sense that it was a long way out for Jeremiah to make his move, and we were slowly reeling him in when the Moto came up along side to tell us "Longest, hardest climb of the day coming up." Great.
It was my turn to set tempo up the climb, and it was a battle of wills as Jeremiah would look back and keep his effort just high enough to keep me from latching on. I’m sure he knew it was burning my matches faster than his. Still, after a good 15-20 min of climbing we passed another aid station and turned immediately into the woods and some brutally rough singetrack that I immediately recognized from the TS Epic when we had tackled it in the other direction. Leading into the woods I noticed that Shottler and Tanguy were falling back in the rough stuff so I kept the pressure on and surprisingly soon saw the green and black of Jeremiah’s C-dale kit diving and weaving through the East Coast underbrush. Just as I was about to make contact a poor line through a line less rock garden sent me crashing on my side and the sickening sound of spokes pinging my derailleur when got up. Damage assessment- bend hanger and derailleur….sigh. Some quick He-Man work had it ridable if still wildly bent, but I was back to chasing down Bishop. Soon enough I made contact and we started to work together after coming out of the woods onto anther dirt road.
Now was the time to ask- "Jeremiah, how far in are we?"
"Oh, about 60 miles"
Oh, man, I should have waited longer to ask. Soon Schottler caught back on while Jeremiah and I had a joint nature/mechanical work break so I wouldn’t tear my bike apart. We tackled the days final sequence of climbs together before hitting the last checkpoint and starting the final decisive section of the race, a long jeep-road climb followed be the infamous "fishermans trail." To call the fishermans trail, a "trail" is a generous overstatement. To look at it you would be hard pressed to find a decent line to walk through much less ride a bike. it’s a bomb-drop of giant boulders interspersed with roots and steep grade transitions. Only two people are said to have cleaned the whole section end-to end. One of them was with us in the group as we started the jeep road.
It wasn’t unexpected when Jeremiah attacked, I knew it would come before the technical stuff. Unfortunately it caught me at a point when my shoulders had just started to really rock and the lights were beginning to dim. So as he rode away it became operation damage control, and I just hoped that I could out ride Shottler in the technical stuff before the flat, rail grade back into town. Unfortunately the state of my rear shifting was not helping my cause through the boulder garden and Schottler was able to get a gap coming out of the woods that I was unable to close in the final miles of the race. Turns out, 101 miles actually was 1 mile too far.
That said, it was a career best finish in a hundred miler so far, against some of the heads of state of the NUE series. It was a confidence booster heading into the next two weeks where I will head out to Colorado for arguably the biggest 100 miler of them all, the Leadville 100. Hopefully I’ll be able to take this form, build on it with a week and a half of good training at altitude and be able to improve on my 7:18:00 finish from last year. I’ll check back in with an update from the land of thin air…Take care.