Battle of the Bear: My First Mountain Bike Race

I had given up on the idea of racing a mountain bike after choosing the Guanella Pass Hill Climb over the Beti Bike Bash. The Beti Bike Bash has a race category specific to women who have never raced before. I was all about that because mountain biking intimidated the shit out me. To factor racing in totally freaked me out.

I thought that if I could take on a race with other first-timers, it wouldn’t be as humiliating as opposed to racing another course with experienced athletes. At least if I was going to suck, I’d have the camaraderie with other noobs.

When I saw one of my teammates, Teena, offering her registration to Battle of the Bear, it was hard to pass up. Especially when my husband was also planning to race it. I was originally planning on racing the Senior State Time Trial Championship which was the same day as the Battle of the Bear, so it came down to racing a 40K Time Trial to prove I was better than last year (DFL last year) or racing 16 miles on a mountain bike having absolutely no clue as to how that race would turn out. I opted to throw myself out of my comfort zone (and hopefully not off my bike) in a big way and race my first-ever mountain bike course.

I asked and verified with my teammates the technical difficulty on the course as I’ve never ridden the mountain bike trails in Breckenridge (note: this race was rescheduled and relocated due to a storm on the originally scheduled date). I knew my weaknesses were downhill and weird, technical spots on trails. I certainly wasn’t going to huck myself into a race that would be absolutely above my abilities and therefore, making it completely miserable. I knew I could take some misery, but not 16 miles worth.

When I received the email notification that Teena transferred her registration to me, boy, did the butterflies start whirling around in my belly.

I told Chris we had to preview the course before the race. There was no way I was going into this blindly. Chris, on the other hand, was comfortable with the unknown. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) with road races, I’ll neglect to preview courses. And usually it doesn’t work out in my favor. At the very least, if I was going to give mountain bike racing a try, I sure as shit was going to see what I was getting myself into.

Saturday morning we packed up and drove to Breckenridge (which, in hindsight, we probably should have found a hotel room so we didn’t have to drive so far). On the drive up, it hadn’t quite settled in that I would be hauling ass over trails. I had no idea what the course was like, other than what my teammates promised; which was, “You’ll do great. It’s not techy at all.”

Luckily, the race organizers had the signage up, making it easier to learn the route. Within the first ten minutes, we hit a pitchy climb and it continued. This is where I do well. I can do climbs. There were more climbs and I was feeling good. I kept up with the group although the quads burned a little. (Note: I only have flat pedals on my mountain bike so it’s all quads.) About a mile in I was like, “Sweet. I got this.” And then we hit the downhill, which, as a Roadie, fucks with my head too much. And I know I let it.

And it couldn’t just be a downhill; it had to be a downhill coupled with sand and tight turns, a combination of worst-case scenarios for a roadie. On pavement, you would never see a cyclist take a tight turn with sand sprinkled all over, let alone a pit of sand (unless, of course, they’re racing cross, and they already know it’s there). That’s a straight line to blood, bruises, and broken bikes.  

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So there I am, inching my way down this twisty, turny trail at a snail’s pace. It would have been faster if I just walked it. I wanted to “session” the section so I could figure out the best line or at the very least, get a tiny bit more comfortable with it. But by the time I caught up with the group, they started rolling out. Any confidence I had on the uphills quickly eroded – much like the sand that used to be rocks.

I think Chris realized my anxiety when he saw me death-gripping my handlebars as I traversed the sandy pit of hell. He reared up behind me and reminded me that a lot of racers struggle uphill so that’s where I needed to focus because that was my strength. I needed to “stop fixating on my weaknesses and to race to my strengths.”

We continued previewing the course, my confidence steadily waning. I kept telling myself that this was supposed to be fun. If I wasn’t having fun, why was I doing it?

There was one rocky section toward the end. The group sat at the bottom, watching me descend, which makes anyone nervous. “Don’t stryder. Don’t stryder.” I wanted to put my feet down, but with the pressure from my audience, I kept my feet on the pedals. I knew this part could make or break the race for me.

The last section of the course was like, a bmx park. It’s obvious I don’t mountain bike often. I don’t know the terms. There were berms and it winded back and forth. I could have jumped off a couple hitters, but I tapped my brakes instead.

We rode underneath the official finish line and my nerves were still rattling. Previewing the course made me more nervous about the race, but I was also happy to know what to expect.

My legs felt heavy from the first loop so we decided to stop after one go-around instead of going through it a second time.

After picking up some grub from King Soopers, Chris and I drove all the way back down to Littleton. I didn’t sleep well that night. 

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As we packed the car, Littleton weather was beautiful. Which is why I neglected to bring cold-weather gear. It was a tough lesson when we rolled up to registration, wind gusting, cold rain tapping against my sunglasses, and the hairs on my arms standing at high salute.

I quickly realized how different mountain bike racing is from road racing. Unlike road races, mountain bikers were chatting away, drinking beer, and taking naps. I kept looking at my watch, wondering what time we’d start warming-up.

And there wasn’t much of a warm-up. I think I went up and down the same hill six times before lining up to chat some more. As we grouped together, I checked out everyone’s calves and saw that I was only racing two other women (also, unlike road, they mark your calves for your category and age group).

The ladies joked that all we had to do was finish and we’d place. I didn’t want to place that easily. Like road, I wanted to earn my placement. If I was going to land on the podium, it was because I worked my ass off for it. Because in the road races, I’ve worked my ass off and still ended up in dead fucking last place.

I watched Chris line up ahead of me and as soon as the whistle was blown, he was gone.

My goal was to stay on Kristi’s wheel as long as I could. I knew uphill wouldn’t be an issue. It was the downhill. She’s a strong rider so I had my work cut out for me.

The whistle blew and us seven women shot off. I was on Kristi’s wheel, just like I planned.  We quickly dropped the rest of the women. I wanted to pace myself, but I wanted to stay with Kristi more. We caught up to the men within the first ten minutes of racing. I didn’t think I’d say, “On your left” at all, but I called it out several times as Kristi and I pedaled up the first steep hill.

I shook as I kept speed with Kristi, focusing on her torso, watching her seamlessly weave around rocks and slightly brushing against bushes that lined the trail. She stopped several times from some mechanical problem, apologizing each time I slowed down with her. I was doing well until we reached the twisty, sandy downhill. She was off like the White Rabbit and I was Alice wondering where the hell she went.

Slowly traversing down, trying my damndest to stay loose, Marc and the men we previously passed, caught up to me. I pulled over and told them to go. Marc yelled, “You’ve got this, Jessica! Trust your bike!”

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I knew he was right, but I also knew my back tire was sliding and I hated it. They took off, leaving me in the sandy pit of hell I thoroughly remembered from the day before.

I knew I’d catch up with them on the fire road and told myself so. I tried convincing myself I was fearless, that my bike and I, would be fine. I took the last few turns and saw them on the hill ahead of me.

The fire road was simply an uphill dirt road. I saw the men ahead of me. I took a sip of water and kept pushing my pedals, slowly cutting the distance between us. I caught up to them on a very short yet very steep hill. I didn’t have enough momentum to pedal up so I jumped off the bike and started running up the hill.

Marc and Simon both yelled, “You got this, Jessica!” And I yelled back, “Let’s go, guys! Come on!”

I jumped on Marc’s wheel. “Let me know when you’re ready to pass!” He said. We came to another hill and I took off. We continued leapfrogging through the first lap. They’d drop me on the downhills and I’d pass them going up.

Kristi was long gone but I knew that would happen.

As we pedaled under the main banner, signifying our second lap, seeing my mom and Dean, posing for Kyle’s photo, I told myself I couldn’t keep leapfrogging Marc and the guys. I knew it was messing with everyone’s race. I knew I had to buck up, stay loose, and trust my bike. So I pushed harder on the uphills and loosened my grip on the downhills. I felt like I was flying (really, I wasn’t that much faster than the first lap but our brains like to play tricks).

I tried looking ahead on the trail instead of directly in front of my tire. In a few of the sketchy sandy spots on tight turns, I threw my foot down to help with the turn. I had nothing to prove to anyone and if using my toe to keep me comfortable made me go faster, then so be it, I thought.

Every time I saw a racer ahead of me, I’d take it up a notch and catch up to them.

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My quads screamed. My lungs burned. And my hands shook from adrenaline.

One section was a steep, sandy downhill, with washboards. On the first lap, two dudes yelled at me to let go of the brakes. The second time I rolled around, they yelled at me again. I yelled back saying I was a roadie and to hush it, semi-jokingly, of course.

As I took off, their departing words were, “Sweet tattoos!”

I spent the next five minutes ruminating over those two dudes who found it easy to tell someone how to ride, yet they were standing on the sidelines. It’s always easier said than done.

As I took a second to catch my breath, I looked up at the sky and saw the mountains encircling me. It was clear why mountain biking is preferred by my husband. No cars. Just nature.

And then I was thrown back into the reality of racing when I came upon the rocky downhill section that freaked me out. This time I was ready for it. I lowered my saddle and followed the line clearly taken by all the bikers before me. No one was around but I still felt the pressure to stay on my pedals. And I did just that.

Shaky and exhausted, I shifted up and kept pedaling. My goal was simply to finish unscathed and not totally ashamed of my performance. I crossed the finish line without expectations and a cheering crowd. I kissed my husband, gave Jim his gloves and Kyle his arm warmers, and hugged my mother. We continued to cheer as other racers rolled in. We reminisced on tough sections, sketchy descents, and funny moments. Then Chris offered to get my timing receipt for me.

Chris handed me my race report. I finished first.

I was shocked and excited. No way in hell did I think I could pull off a first place in a mountain bike race when it totally terrified me. But this race was less about my placement and more about the experience. And while I was full of stoke as a climbed up to the top step, I was also regretful that I rarely give myself credit for the road races.

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The mountain bike race was a way to try something new with no pressure or expectations. I didn’t expect anything of myself except to finish. I’ve never patted myself on the back for finishing a road race. If I don’t land on the podium, I feel like a failure. If I come in Dead Fucking Last, I usually sulk and maybe cry behind sunglasses when no one’s looking. I take road racing too seriously and I think it’s because I have these lofty goals of becoming some sponsored racer where I get to travel the world and ride my bike. I’d love that.

And when I’m not excelling, I realize that dream may only ever be a dream.

I applaud myself for my mountain bike racing efforts because I don’t have those same goals with mountain biking as I do with road racing. I’m thankful to have another form of biking that I can just enjoy while also pushing myself. I’ll keep Road where it’s at: serious and my number one passion. Mountain biking will stay as my let-loose sport where I can cheer on teammates while we race along the course; where I can enjoy the beautiful scenery as I pedal and gasp for air; where I can leave for the day without a podium and still be proud of my efforts.



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