Going for the gusto at Sugar Mountain
Special to the Sun
Finally, something to write home about!
I’m in Banner Elk, N.C., at a ski resort called Sugar Mountain ” stop No. 6 on the NORBA National Mountain Bike Series. It was appropriately dubbed the “Showdown at Sugar.”
Having just left a muddy and technical course in Vermont, where I never finished due to a broken seat post, I was looking for retribution.
Flying in straight from Vermont, I had five days to train and practice on one of the toughest courses on the NORBA circuit. What made it tough is not just the roots and rocks, but it had been raining here, and the course was narrow with so many roots your tires almost never touched the dirt. Cover those roots with grease, add a bunch of rocks and drops, and you have a recipe for cooking fear and intimidation into the best of the West Coast riders.
My first descent during practice did just that: It made me respect what the East Coast riders have to go through in order to ride out there.
We went up for another lap, and the skies opened up and the rain started coming down in buckets. Although most of the climbs were on fire road, with all the rain, you had a hard time getting traction and not coming off. Tire selection would prove to be key. On the next descent there were two drops that were a concern to me, and I knew that they would be the key to making up time on this race. I was determined to do it, and I practiced them every day until Sunday, race day.
The rain had stopped a day before, but the course was a slick, muddy mess with hundreds of riders racing on it all weekend. In my age group I had three people of concern. First was Dana, who was the series leader and has been beating me by 5 to 10 minutes in every race.
Next was Tim, an East Coast rider who knocked me off the podium at the World Championships three years ago by out-climbing me on the last lap. Next was last year’s winner, an XTERRA athlete by the name of Ian, also from the East Coast. He had beaten Dana on this same course last year by 5 minutes! I had my work cut out for me. As the gun sounded, those three guys took the lead and I filed in behind them.
The climb would take about 40 minutes with an 8-minute descent, if all went well. As the hill got steeper, I got on Tim’s wheel and followed his line. About halfway up, the pitch lessened and I was able to get into my middle ring, my power ring. I love mashing my pedals on this grade, and I quickly went past Tim and started looking for Dana and Ian.
Dana, who is about 6-foot-4 and around 190 pounds, has an uncanny ability to climb given his large frame. But I learned that his Achilles’ heel is his descending. He has a high center of balance, and he does not like slippery conditions. So if I could just keep him in sight, I could catch him on the descent.
As we crested the top, I slipped into the first single track, literally. The mud was pure goo that would suck your tire. I had a lot of guys floundering in front of me and coming off. But where I could ride, my tires felt good and I was gaining confidence. I was passing a lot of guys from the younger age group, but they were slowing me down.
No sign of Ian or Dana. As I came up to the first rock drop, I prayed that courage and wisdom would replace recklessness and folly. I was rewarded by cleaning the drop with no bobbles. Right before the next drop was a very steep section with baby heads that was the most intimidating. I had so many riders floundering down there, I got off and ran. I ran past the drop at full speed, passing two or three riders, then I was back on and cleaned the rest of the descent. I felt great as I rounded the start/finish and started the second and final lap.
While climbing, Tim caught up and passed me. I could not forget how he passed me at Worlds and said to myself that we are not going to have a repeat. I had conserved enough energy for the second lap, so I got right on his wheel. We struck up a conversation, and I realized that he had caught me on the descent. All of the slow riders in front had cost me at least 30 seconds.
Tim also told me that I had passed Ian. He must have been one of the riders I passed on the descent. This really inspired me, and as we cleared the steep part of the climb, I passed Tim and started looking for Dana’s jersey. Suddenly, Ian was on my back tire. He also talked a bit, saying he really struggled with the descent.
My attention now turned to defending my second-place position.
Ian passed, and I immediately covered his attack, I knew that I had to stay close on this climb. This was getting exciting. I felt strong, but I had no idea how much Ian had left in his tank. I stayed on his wheel for a couple more minutes, then as we came up to pass, two riders and Ian went left and I broke right. I made the pass but Ian covered and was soon back on my tire. His breathing was labored, and I knew he was close to breaking. Another rider in front, and I made another break to pass and get away. Ian again covered and came right back.
I was wearing him down. The next rider I passed, I stepped up the cadence, and this time I pulled away. I could see the top, and I started to look for Dana, who was nowhere in sight. I glanced back and saw that Ian was about 15 seconds back, but not giving up, and Tim was about 15 behind him.
As I cleared the top, I flew into the single-track. This time I had a clear run with no riders in front of me. There was a section of pavement that linked the single tracks, and as I looked back, Ian was still there about 20 seconds back. I knew that I had to ride the best descent in my life to stay ahead.
There was no more looking back; I was focused on the course. I hit the first drop and nailed it. Great, halfway there. I hit the rocky steep section and there was a rider in my way. I jumped and ran down with my bike on my shoulder, clearing three to four rocks at a time. There were spectators cheering my effort as I passed this guy, I hopped back on and went into the second drop. I nailed it perfectly. Again a crowd of onlookers applauded the fact that I cleaned that drop. I was pumped up.
Then I caught another rider, but he was fast. I got on his wheel and we skidded and bounced our way down through the next series of roots and rocks. Then we blasted through the trees and we were on the straight-away to the finish.
There was no way that I could safely pass. I just hung onto his back wheel and flew towards the finish. As we entered the finish area, I passed him on a short climb and finally was able to look back and see that there was no one chasing. As I crossed the finish, there was Dana, out of breath, and shocked to see me. His first comment was, “How did you pass Ian?”
Dana finished ahead of me by one minute, but Ian and Tim came in more than 2 minutes behind.
Winning second place is my best NORBA finish in the last two years, and I have a solid hold on my second-place series standing. One final race remains ” the finals in Snowmass, Colo.
Paul Zarubin, a Truckee resident who races under the motto “Powered by God,” competes in the NORBA 50-54 Expert Division of the National Mountain Bike Series. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.