Exchequer Opener 02/26/22 – Finn Kaste

When I first saw the 2022 NICA race schedule I saw the very first race happened to fall on my birthday. Because of this I was a little hesitant to register but I realized it had been almost two years since my last NICA race. My most valuable high school memories have been from the mountain bike races. Going into my last year of NICA I want to make the most out of the season, especially after missing two years. I also saw that the race was at an exciting, new venue. I had heard a lot of interesting things about Exchequer Bike Park and I’ve been wanting to check it out for a while. Between my deprivation of highschool racing and my curiosity with this new venue, without a doubt, I had made up my mind. 

As the race approached I was super stoked, but there were also a few unknowns. This was my first varsity race and it’s a notoriously intense and exclusive category. I remember watching the varsity races as a spectator and they looked so intimidating. I felt almost certain I would get dropped. I also wasn’t a fan of the 8:00 start time and I was unsure about camping the night before a race. At Sea Otter I raced Cat 1 and I bonked hard. I wound up finishing dead last, ten minutes behind the pack. I had camped there the night before and it was an 8 o’clock race so there were a lot of parallels. It made me worried that Exchequer would have a similar outcome.

I drove up with my parents on Friday. We had planned on bringing a second tent for Jalen to use but when we pulled in we realized we had left it at home. Luckily DJ was kind enough to lend us his brand new tent (shoutout to DJ). At 4:30 after setting up camp we set out for the pre-ride. Rumor had it that apparently there was 1,200 feet of climbing per lap so I was surprised when it was just the standard amount of NICA race climbing. I was also surprised because almost all of the track was either doubletrack or dirt roads. I do like my singletrack but when it comes to passing, this course was ideal. The course also had a fair share of fun singletrack descents to spice things up. Having a feel for the course boosted my confidence for the race. 

After a fun, tasty dinner and a hilariously catastrophic dish washing session, we had our evening team meeting where we shared our race goals. My main goal was simply to pace myself. I had zero expectations and all I wanted was to not burn out like I did at Sea Otter. After the meeting I went straight to bed trying to get the most sleep possible. 

On Saturday, the morning of my 18th birthday, I woke up at 5:30 to the sound of crackling and I saw a flickering orange glow at the foot of the tent. It was a very strange surreal way to start the day. I poked my head out of the tent and sure enough, my parents had got up and made me a surprise birthday fire. They even had oatmeal and hot chocolate set up for me. I stationed myself next to the fire. The heat gave me energy in the frigid predawn air. My original intent was to get up, wolf down breakfast, and start warming up early to wake myself up as much as possible before the race. I was so caught up enjoying the fire and my warm breakfast that I didn’t start my warmup until 7:20 but by then it didn’t matter. The fire and breakfast made me energized and somehow I knew it was going to be a good day. 

Fifteen minutes before race start I lined up in the B callup row, but there were enough no shows that I ended up right behind Will and the front row. I was starting my gopro when I heard Coco ask if anyone knew someone by the name of Finn. This took me by surprise. Had I done something wrong? There’s another Finn on varsity, could he be talking about him? Then he said, “it’s his 18th birthday today” and then I remembered. Who could have told him? (Will…) All of a sudden literally everyone started singing Happy Birthday. After what felt like minutes of utter humiliation the singing ceased and the crowd’s attention shifted back to Coco as he started talking about sponsors (whew). 

Before I knew it Coco was counting down and we took off. I held back a bit not wanting to burn out on the first sprint and a lot of people from the rows behind me passed. By the time we entered the doubletrack I was pretty far back in the pack. We were drafting in a nice long line snaking through the hills. I stayed put for a bit but eventually there were some nice passing opportunities that I took advantage of. I most certainly wasn’t in the bottom pack and I didn’t feel like I was dying so that was a plus. 

By the time we got to the first fire road section after the switchbacks things had started to spread out a bit. Shortly after the fire road stretch was a fast loose turn and a Berkeley kid had wiped out. I got around him easily enough shouting the obligatory “you good?” He said yes. I sprinted ahead and suddenly I saw a kid in an El Cerrito jersey ahead of me. It was Will! I sprinted to catch up to him and I let him pull me a good distance. On the second fire road stretch he took a sip of water and I passed him to return the favor. A ways ahead of us was a kid in an orange jersey and I shouted “let’s catch that guy.” I pushed up the final, moderately steep hill at a healthy pace, reeling in the orange jersey kid but when I got to the top I realized I had dropped Will. 

I continued to push trying to catch the orange jersey kid. I caught him at the awkward uphill switchback entering the fireroad. He seemed to be losing steam but I had worked hard trying to catch him and I was in no mood to pass him. I shouted “c’mon let’s push” just to let him know I was there hoping it would give him the boost he needed to speed up. It worked, maybe a bit too well because he quickly dropped me on the final singletrack downhill. I quickly caught him though on the climb at the beginning of the second lap. He had really slowed down and I went right past him on the wide doubletrack. 

The rest of the race was pretty uneventful. Without anyone around me it was very hard to gauge my speed and really push but I tried my best. By the end of my second lap the word had made it to the British announcer and as I crossed the finish line he said “here comes Finn Kaste, the BIRTHDAY BOY!” That’s when it seemed to really catch on and for the rest of the day I could not escape the Happy Birthdays. I was the only racer with a backpack and a gopro so that combined with my bright red helmet made it all the easier for people to single me out. For the whole third lap whenever I rode by someone I would hear, “hey it’s the birthday boy, happy birthday!” It was a bit embarrassing but it was also pretty cool, certainly an experience I’ll never forget.

I felt strong on the last leg of the race. I saw Doug and he told me I was 30 seconds ahead of Will. This gave me an extra adrenaline boost and not letting him catch me became my new objective. Most of the third lap went pretty smoothly until the awkward uphill switchback. I took it a bit fast and slid out. I didn’t fall but it slowed me down and suddenly two kids passed me out of the blue. The first was wearing a red jersey. I tried to stay on him but he was really fast and he quickly dropped me. The second was a Salinas kid. I was able to keep up. We sprinted up the fire road climb and caught up to the red jersey kid. I tried to hold them on the last descent but I had a bit of an awkward turn and they dropped me. I saw the Salinas kid’s strava post and apparently he dropped his chain 6 times explaining why it took him so long to pass me. I also recognized his name as one of the really fast kids from last year. I tried my best to “sprint” the last paved stretch and I finished feeling not too wiped and capable of another lap. Will finished about 20 seconds behind me and I congratulated him as he rolled up. 

After a bit of spectating and cheering as the Freshman girls raced, I had to satiate my curiosity and I did a lap down Flying Squirrel, one of the Exchequer Bike Park trails. It was a nice blend of tech and flow. There were also some sketchy jumps and features that I would never dare hit on my hardtail with my lack of skills. Even going into it blind and solo, it was pretty fun and I think it’s worth going back to explore the other trails. I hear they are all built by volunteer mountain bike and trail building enthusiasts like me making it all the more intriguing. The trail dropped me right on the course and I was able to watch the sophomore and freshman boys race by. It turned out the only way back to the main camping area was to go on course on the fireroad climb so I waited for a relative gap in the traffic and went for it. I rounded a corner to find the whole Berkeley team stationed spectating at the top. I was on the course with no easy escape so obviously they were focused right on me. I heard Axel yell something like, “it’s the birthday boy, racing again!” And the whole team started singing happy birthday. I frantically escaped as quickly as possible. 

After cheering on the JV boys I discovered podium wasn’t until after the middle school races which meant we had to wait another two hours at least. I had already eaten so I went back to my campsite to hang out. I was looking at the results when my dad came up frantically telling me to hurry back to the tent. A bit confused, I coasted down and I saw a cake brightly lit with candles. The team sang happy birthday and everyone had signed a nice card. A bit bewildered but pleasantly surprised, I unsuccessfully tried blowing out all 18 candles and we all passed the time with delicious cake.

All in all it was a very unique but fun and memorable birthday that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend any other way. The race was also a great success. All my lap times were within 40 seconds of each other so I definitely did a good job pacing myself. Not only that but after being so sure I would finish dead last, I was pleasantly surprised to find I placed 16th in a heat of 25. I can rest assured that I am varsity worthy. I even felt I could have pushed for another lap so I’m excited for the four lap races. I’m looking forward to the season and I’m curious to see what the future races will bring.