A quick recovery and it was time to dive back into the ultra endurance world at the Cohutta 100, NUE round 2. With the heart aching news about my friend AJ Linnell some of the SS stalwarts and I donned a black and white jersey with his name in his honor. I will say it was one of the most special things I’ve ever done for a friend. To me that was a way to celebrate, honor, and cherish who AJ was and how he affected all of us and the world around him. He is, and will be missed. But sentiment wasn’t all Cohutta was about. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to win that race. For myself, for AJ, and for all the support Emily and Blue Ridge Cyclery have given me. I’ve wanted to win a hundred mile race overall since I started doing them, only two riders have ever done that. And after the war of attrition that took place in the wilds of Tennessee I can now say I am the third. It proved to me and others that it can be done, even on a course that doesn’t favor SS overly well, and proved that the fitness would be strong for marathon nationals. The warm Tennessee sun on my back showing through AJ’s jersey, and Emily and Pippy waiting at the finish line with smiles and cold water and i couldn’t have been happier with my day. I rode a smart race, an aggressive race when needed, and I did it while staying safe and keeping the bike in one piece.
Its a good feeling when you know all you have to do is recover and ride a fitness boost before the next event. Driving home from Cohutta it was all about making the week following easy and safe, doing plenty of mobility an stretching, some low intensity miles, and staying on top of nutrition. Im not going to be able to go to California to defend my SS national XC title so I planned to be at Marathon distance nationals to earn another if I could. Trucking (subaru’ing) down to GA we were loaded for bear. I had not pre-ridden but I had scoped things out enough to know I would need a big gear, grippy rubber, and plenty of pedaling in my legs. The Marathon Nats course is 58 miles (most got closer to 60) and a little over 2000 feet of climbing, which means you are on the throttle the whole time. That cannot be over stated, the WHOLE time. Its primarily southeast turn and burn singletrack with some bumpy loamy stuff thrown in. The trails are fast but they definitely have a speed limit. Give it too much gas and youll overcook in loose pine beds. I also knew I would have to bring my A game because Mike Montalbano and Ron Harding (the “singletrack assassin” were both racing and while Ron will talk all day long about how he isnt fit or fast, he is. He Always is. He stalked me for three laps at XC nationals three years ago only to spring past when I had a badly timed mechanical and take 2nd behind Seamus Powell (he who shall not be named). There were over 20 riders in the SS class and even though my plan of doing both SS and Pro later that afternoon had been snafu’d by a timing conflict I was headed to go to GA lookin for some souls to steal.
The early 8AM start was great news because it meant we would escape the heat of the day and also be able to tackle the pine beds with a little more stick than later in the day. To the start line SS riders were going off first and were thus guaranteed a clean course to have our way with. And boy did we! I took a holeshot run and immediately strung things out such that Mike,Ron and I were out front and in control fast. I didnt know what gearing they were riding but felt confident my 34×19 would be suitable for the singletrack, even if it lacked a little on the road section later in the course. My tentative plan was to ride a conservatively fast pace for the first 30 or so until we came through Aid station 2 (start/finish) and entered into a long intermittent fire road->singletrack->fire road->road section. The return back off the figure 8 was more singletrack heavy than the way out and around mile 50 I was banking on feeling better than most given the hundred milers in my legs up to this point. No way to guarantee that but I was hoping I could launch an attack at this that if needed.
We kept our group of Mike, Ron and I together through Aid 2 and headed into the open sections. Mike and Ron were both pedaling lower cadence than I was on the trail which meant their gears were much bigger than mine. I guessed at least two teeth smaller; making this stretch of open paved and unpaved road the only spot they could have me in trouble if they worked together. I made sure to be right on their wheels on every acceleration through the gravel. Fortunately the gravel portions for now had some steep pitches. We tooled along nicely, Mike charging to the front to take the lead on a couple of occasions as Ron and I watched. Mike’s gear had given him a little trouble in the woods because it was so big. If he was going go go offensive, here is where it would be. And sure enough when we turned right nearing the end of the fire road Mike attacked the downhill. In doing so he got a little speed blind and before we knew it he was locking up his breaks trying to stop in time to make a right hand turn he hadnt seen. We had seen the tape in front of Mike but had trusted him to handle getting us where we needed to be. Apparently to Mike this meant having me on the ground….
As Mike Locked his wheel up I eeked to the right and saw the corner. I jumped on those XTR brakes for all they were worth and made an effort to bring myself to a controlled stop as fast as I could, nearly locking both wheels up in the loose gravel. As 30 miles per hour became 20, and 20 10 or so I could see the corner and made an effort to be inside of Mike going into it. When I did I called out “on your right, RIGHT, RIIIGGHHT!!!!.” But Mikes bike and body came sideways into mine throwing me supermanned out into the dirt. Mike clearly had not intended to do this, and I know how easy it can be to make mistakes, but I was livid. It felt like a very rookie mistake out of a racer who has a heck of a resume on the bike. Completely avoidable, and yet an accident of course. I hopped back on, collected my bottles and myself, thanking God and Shawn Tevendale that we built up my Pivot LES so it could take that kind of abuse unpunished. My nice guy persona immediately got quiet and I was ready to be out of there. Ready to be rid of at least Mike, possibly Ron if he couldnt hang. Ron was in control on the singletrack and was polite enough to give me time to clear the adrenaline from my system. As soon as the trail widened and I was able I came around Mike and absolutely charged into the following stretch of singletrack. Beta on this Keg creek portion of the course was that is was techy, chunky, and probably not a great place to attack since it had so much road and doubletrack following it. I dont care much for power plays, moves for show, but I was making one. I wanted to clear the legs and show Mike that while I may have been quiet that move was gonna get him dropped. (clear head clear up here, I recognize Mike’s move was an accident but for a person who prides himself on clean races and clean seasons I saw it all flash before me a little in that wreck) No Prisoners.
Mike was quickly off the tail of our troupe. Ron was struggling, fighting to stay on. I enjoy riding with both of them and was glad for Ron to come with me if he could, but honestly I was pleased to see them both getting smaller behind me. The Keg loop opened up into the road and as my legs opened up a little my quad began to twitch and cramp. The handlebars had smacked my thigh hard enough a bruise was already forming. This wasnt good. I had a full tube of endurolytes on my pocket so I sat up on the road and took a few. BUMP, and theyre all gone…on the ground…A short loop-around to see if I could salvage and I saw Ron clear the woods. I couldnt wait. I had to move, with Ron if I could, knowing his gear was bigger than mine. We still hadnt been caught by any geared riders but if we were they could bring Mike back with them. We had to make that gap big enough he couldnt bridge it. I wasnt going to engage in a sprint finish with these guys, not with those big gears.
Lots of open road, felt like it never ended. But Mike also never bridged. On the throttle and I was spinning hard to make sure Ron and I got away. I hadnt made a plan to get rid of Ron yet but that Keg Loop was as good a spot as any when we returned back through. For now I was happy to ride with him. And ride we did. Forcing my self to be conservative as my thigh twitched and cramped from the impact. Unable to do anthing about it I kept my cadence smooth and even, using all muscle groups evenly. Funny thing about cramping is that if you over-use another muscle that one gets fatigued, its a very fine balance that can be ridden out with patience sometimes. I was thanking my stars I placed some Endurolytes in my water bottles. I rarely do that but had that morning knowing I may not be able to take pills on in the singletrack but was glad I had at least two endurolytes dissolved in my bottles.
The heat was kicking in as Ron and I turned into the Mistletoe loop. Through the bumpy loamy singletrack with occasional wide open chutes we kept the pace high and I focused on riding well at the front but not exerting too much with any one muscle group. As we got into the last few miles of the Mistletoe park loop we hit “the stream crossing.” A huge swampy hip deep creek about 15 feet across with a nice long steep gully coming out the other side of the crossing. We had been joined by two geared riders during the back half of the loop and as I came out of the creek and hopped on the bike I got on top of my 34×19 and worked to the top as gently but powerfully as I could. When I looked around the two geared riders were just a little off my wheel with Ron farther off. I didnt pay it much mind but this was the deciding move. Before long it was just me and the geared pair of Ryan Sirbel and “some roadie from Greeneville.” Ryan is a strong and smooth rider so when he came to the front on the road I was glad to let him lead. I dont know Ryan more than just by reputation but he quickly proved his reputation right. MNore than a few times he tried to peel off and give the other rider the front to share the load but he never did. Ryan was clearly frustrated with this and at one point even offered me the front. I would eventually take the front but not just yet. Not before I heard this mystery rider expressing to Ryan that he was happy with second. If Ryan was going to bring this guy to the line, apparently he was going to let him have it. Roadies…
We paced smoothly in, back through the never ending singletrack. Eventually we made it back onto the gravel road with my legs surviving just a little longer. I was glad they had made it. I learned some lessons about how to stay loose and stretch out on the bike while still making time. When the fire road opened back up and we headed up the climb Mike had crashed me on I started to make my own little move. Ready to be home I grabbed the throttle and gave it some watts, accelerating way from the pair whose games had only just begun. I gradually moved away from them on the fire road and when I came to an unmarked turn (I was the first through again at this point) I stopped, knowing the race behind me would be furious I determined which direction the race went and stayed to make sure the pair of Sirbel and Roadie made it correctly. I knew Ryan had done all of the work for their pair for tha last 30 miles and so I desperately wanted to see him come out of the woods unaccompanied. He didnt, his shadow was right there. I confirmed the direction with the boys and watched as they shot for the line. Roadie went for it…and won. Tactical, yes, fair, yes, does it win any friends. No, not this guy. Ryan won that race, he did the work. And he should be proud of that.
I came across the line shortly after, out of their photo finish and saw Emily and Pippy standing and cheering. Excited that our goal had been realized we met up at the finish line and hugged. I gave Emy a big furry kiss and pat pippy on her sweaty schnauzer head. It felt good to be back, finished, and victorious. It was a much harder win than I had expected and while part of me pines for the pro podium given my Cohutta performance, it was still an incredible day. Thank you to Blue Ridge Cyclery and Emily for helping make it all happen. Couldnt do it without you. I just turn the pedals. Its been an absolute thrill of a few weeks, incredible confirmation that the work I did over the winter was what it needed to be and can be built upon to keep moving faster and harder into the summer.