Back in October when I first read the 2022 race schedule and saw the race in Modesto, I thought it was an error. I couldn’t picture a mountain bike race course in flat, agricultural Modesto but to my disbelief, I soon found out that it was not an error. The pandemic derailed my sophomore and junior year’s mountain bike racing and this is my last season with El Cerrito so I want to make the most out of it. I was profoundly disappointed that one of our races would be wasted in some urban park in a random, boring, flat city that I only knew from passing by on 99 south. I felt convinced that it would be a throw away race.
Seeing the POV video the week before did not improve my attitude. It could have been the GoPro effect but I watched the entirety of the video and it was pretty much exactly what I had imagined. I couldn’t believe we were racing on such a dumb course. I also saw, not surprisingly, that there was only 37 feet of climbing per lap. I tend to be the strongest on climbs and I suck at loose, flat turns. To add insult to injury the weather was forecast to be 90 degrees and windy. Luckily as race day drew closer that turned into a relatively sane but still not ideal 79 degrees. In the days leading up to the race I didn’t have a twinge of nervousness. I didn’t care in the slightest. The course was a joke, the weather was terrible, and I had just come back from a trip and hadn’t worked out in 10 days.
On Friday as we pulled into the dusty parking lot under the overpass, the car thermometer read 98 degrees. There was still an hour before the team preride so I went out on my own to get it over with. I was impressed that there actually were some okay climbs, and the turns were pretty grippy. There were also some fun jumps and berms. I was done in 21 minutes so it was a very fast course. It wasn’t necessarily ideal for me but I felt a lot better because it seemed at least somewhat on par with the regular NICA courses.
The next morning, Tristan and I practiced some of the downhill turns and we got them down pretty well. Feeling more confident, we did another lap just for the heck of it and finished just as the freshman girls started staging. We had the whole day to wait and spectate but this time there was no apprehension. I had no expectations. This course was so different from the usual, I knew any order from the past would be thrown out the window.
At 1 we finally started preparing. Warming up I felt a bit sluggish but I wasn’t surprised since I hadn’t really ridden in so long. We went to staging and Will and I somehow wound up in the second row. I set up my GoPro and started my Garmin and seemingly instantly everyone was counting down.
We took off at a decent sprint. I let Chris and a bunch of others pass me. We were in a pretty tight pack going through the first squiggly series of turns and I was surprised how slow we were going. It seemed all my preparation with Tristan was a waste. We picked up the pace however as the course straightened out. I tried being responsible by not sticking with the top pack. As luck would have it, I saw an Oakland kid who was also straying from the pack and I started drafting off of him. Things were going well and I felt like I was pacing well but soon I noticed that we seemed to be catching the long front pack. Some people passed me to catch them. I saw Will in the back. I couldn’t resist and I sprinted ahead as well. I caught them and wound up right behind Will. I decided to stay right on him and to not let him go.
I realized we were going surprisingly slow. I wasn’t even breathing hard and I found myself braking at odd times. Because of the wind it seemed like everyone was trying their best not to be the one pulling the pack. I couldn’t believe it. I heard Tristan behind me yelling “this is crazy!” With the massive group ahead of us, it felt like practice. We were going at a conversational pace with occasional sprinting intervals after someone crashed or slowed down. After the first lap we were still so tight that we might as well have still been in the start chute. It was a very unreal feeling.
About midway through the second lap on one of the sprinting intervals, I was surprised that my legs didn’t seem too happy. I decided to have one of my blocks. I felt great cardiovascularly but my legs were definitely complaining. I was surprised to find that I seemed to be losing the group. Luckily there was a big slow down at one of the tight, awkward turns and I quickly caught up. By the third lap, my legs felt better and I was still no more than five or six seconds behind the leader. It was so amazing but bizarre. I kept cracking up because it was so unlike any other race.
As the lap progressed however, we finally started to pick up the pace. It was going smoothly at first but right at the finishing stretch there was a sprint and I started to lose the pack. My legs were complaining again and I couldn’t keep up. I was relying on there being another slowdown but there wasn’t. I tried keeping a fairly consistent gap but my energy was waning fast. Without a pack to draft off, I felt the full wrath of the headwind and I fell farther and farther back. I looked behind me and saw Tristan and Ulysses, a Berkeley kid that has always been closely matched with Tristan and I. They were quickly catching up and soon they passed me. I decided there was no way I was going to stay with them and all I could do was hope Tristan could hold Ulysses back (he succeeded). I struggled through the rest of the lap on my own. I wound up finishing 14th which was not great given it was a heat of 17. On the bright side however, I checked my gopro and saw it was still recording with 8% battery remaining. I had caught the four lap race in its entirety on my gopro which was a win for me.
All in all it was a very unique race that I’m very glad to have experienced. Three epic laps followed by a bit of a crummy fourth lap but even though it wasn’t my strongest day or an ideal course, it was a very worthy race for my last NICA season that I’ll never forget.