Puerto Rico and Venezuela, April 19, 2008
The transition into the race season is always a bit difficult. In our case, returning to the states from Chile to my family's home in Massachusetts was the first step of transitioning into race mode, a mandatory stop in and, judging by the piles of backed up paper mail and loose ends that awaited us on our return, a bit overdue. After a busy and cold 10 days at home of training, building race bikes and shuffling papers, Mary and I flew south to officially kick off our race season. The first stop was the Ultimate Dirt Challenge in Rincon, Puerto Rico, on March 31 then on to Venezuela on April 6 to attend the Pan American Continental Championships.
The Ultimate Dirt Challenge (Mike 4th and Mary 1st)
This year's edition more than lived up to our expectations for tropical weather, huge crowds and once again a fantastically organized and fun event. Mary and I have attended this race for the past three years, and it has become one of our favorites as well as our traditional season opener. The promoter, Doel Gonzales (www.ciclomundo.com), once again treated us better than necessary to get us back to be a part of this in this one of a kind event. This year, the race included a spectator friendly traffic snarling downhill (actually crossing the main road into town), a crowd pleasing dirt jumping exhibition, as well as a UCI category one ranked cross country event. Thousands of enthusiastic Puerto Rican spectators attended from all over the island to enjoy this unique and fun one day bike festival.
A tropical island is a great place to host an early spring mountain bike festival and the location in Rincon, Puerto Rico, (a premier surf spot) makes this one all the more alluring for us. Although the potential for a cross country course is limited by available land, it makes up for this with its uniqueness. The cross country track is a seven kilometer twisting ribbon jammed into a dense jungly patch of trees that surrounds a long retired nuclear power plant. Primarily singletrack, short stabby climbs and drops and the feeling of constantly being on a fast railing turn pretty much sum up the course. Glimpses of the blue Caribbean and the rustling of the shady palms helps to make this course one of our favorites. This year, the daily afternoon downpours splitting up the hot/humid sunny days had the track primed, fast and tacky as we have ever seen it.
Of course, the racing still hurt!!! All those long off season hours of specific training rides that are supposed to have you up to speed and ready to compete never really seem to match up to the intensity of the first race. Having learned this lesson before, we always try to get in a few training races as this one before some of the more important ones on the schedule.
The small women's field did not stop Mary from pushing her limits although she was able to ride away easily and take the win - averaging around 19 mph throughout the race and and putting close to 30 minutes on the second place woman. She clearly made the most of her hard training effort as she continued her preparation for top race fitness in the soon upcoming World Cups.
The men's race was more attended by an international field. We started fast my legs seemed to swell up with stale blood just off the start line in an all-out effort to get a good position before the no passing singletrack. I ended up going in sixth or so and had to make some difficult passes in the jungle in an effort to move up. By the time I found a clean line, countrymen Todd Wells and Jason Sager had already made a decisive split and were off the front, and I settled in to ride with my Chilean friends Cristobal and Javier. The techy course suited me very well but it was a struggle to race as I searched my legs for some kind of top end. I ended up finishing fourth a minute off Jason Sager's win and just 15 seconds off the second and third place Chileans, with Todd Wells rounding out the top five.
For us mountain bike athletes, it is always a welcome ego boost to have the opportunity sign a few autographs and pose for pictures with the throngs of fans that attend this festival. I could almost imagine it getting old after a while but as it stands we dont get to feel like celebrities nearly enough.
Pan American Championships, San Juan de los Morros, Venezuela (Mike 6th and Mary 1st)
After a few days of tropical training, Mike and I continued south from Puerto Rico to Venezuela to attend the Pan American Continental Championships. This year's event was held a few hours south of Caracus in the small town of San Juan del los Morros. We met up with the rest of the small US National team which consisted of three elite riders myself, Mike, Todd Wells and two U23 riders Colin Cares and Sam Jurekovic. We were accompanied by three USA Cycling staff members: new MTB team director, Marc Gullicson, team therapist Bernard C. and mechanic TJ Grove. Rounding off our support staff for our brief four day trip to Venezuela were two local body guards: Juan (ex-heavyweight body builder) and Luis (black belt karate master)
The race was held just outside the busy town in the dry, treeless hills with some spectacular jutting "morrows" as a backdrop. The five kilometer track contained some extremely steep climbs, open fireroad style driveways, some wide off camber singletrack roped into the open desert and some gully and rain rut trails. The hard-packed dry earth began to deteriorate to moon dust as the tracks were ridden over and over. The apparent local custom of burning your own field continued right on through race day adding plumes of black smoke to the already dust choked sky but unfortunately did very litlte to block out the scalding sun.
The first thing that came to mind during our initial training session was to have Mke put the small ring back on my bike as there were some abrupt steep climbs that would be all too draining without a little help from granny. I was hoping that this would be enough to keep my power output in check and not crack as the extreme conditions of searing heat were sure to take a huge toll even at my morning race time of 8:45 am.
I went hard from the gun and soon found myself out front with a swarming dust-choked field of women close behind. I was able to gain a small gap by the end of the first few laps and then switch to conservaton mode as I battled the course and conditions. I knew my nearest competitor, Jacqueline (Brazil) was not far behind so I started to dig a little deeper, focused on riding smooth and swift and hydrating as much as possible. On lap four of six, the heat was getting to me and I took advantage of my time splits from our team director Mark and backed off a bit to make sure I was going to make it through the day. I managed to maintain my lead and crossed the finish line earning my third Pan American Gold medal. I feel it is a huge honor to participate in this race with my Pan American sisters and I am happy to once again win this unique and important race that spreads the sport and good will of mountain biking throughout the americas. Big thanks to Kenda, Seven and all my sponsors, Mike and the perfect race day support from our awesome USAC staff!
It is always a bit special to find that you have some fans in far off places like South America or perhaps these folks just saw me ride for the first time, in any case It felt pretty good to do some interviews, sign autographs and pose for a pictures with kids though not as nice as it felt to get back to the team van and change out of my sweat and dust soaked team kit. Definetly a draining effort!! I was lucky that my race was earlywhen the heat was only in the mid 90s [degrees Fahrenheit]. The men were now lining up for an 11:15 am race start under the white hot sun in dry, breezeless 100 plus degree weather! I was nervous to see the toll that was to be taken...
As I watched the men jet off the line a vaccum of dust tracing along behind their effort and then suddenly a big vertical plume indicating an invisible but heavy pile up. An unseasoned rider had tried his hand at the kamakazi advance forward around other riders but into a course marking pole. He ended up taking himself out of the race to be carried shoeless like a child to the ambulance and in his ill thought-out effort slammed into Mike's back wheel causing him to loose his momentum in the critical few seconds at the race start. Mike stayed upright, but lost his clean line and was caught back in the dust as the elite men set to complete the start loop and then eight full laps in the devastating heat.
The front of the race was pretty tight. the top ten were within a few minutes of each other, the other 30 competitors were scattered as the race carried on. The first few laps todd was rocking a blistering pace at the front with our chilean friends, Cristobal and Javier close in tow. The heat and difficulty of the course started to take its toll and the mens field began to blow apart. Mike persevered through his sketchy start and continued to ride advancing his position as high as fifth before eventually settling for sixth after a bit of a "sharing the effort while you battle it out" type ride with Todd. The U23 men competed at the same time as the elites and suffered through the same conditions with one less lap, where Sam Jurekovic earned his his first Pan Am Championship victory. All and all it was a very successful day for the USA.
Mike and I, as well as the rest of the team, feel that this was possibly THE hottest race we have ever competed in well into the danger zone for even watching an outdoor sporting event! Some riders cramped with dehydration, some got dizzy and crashed, some just ploughed through and others were able to hold out and somehow turn the conditions to their advantage.
After the race, podiums, and anti-doping (took me about four hours to hydrate enough for a sample...), we enjoyed sitting by the pool for a half hour, packed up the bikes, cooked another crock pot feast in the hotel and went to bed. In order to catch flights home, most of the team had a painful 3:00 am departure! Mike, Marc and I were glad to be able to sleep in 'til 6:30 am before we began the long travel home. Yes, it was a brief four days in Venezuela, but with some very memorable experiences.
- Gas is only US$2/gallon.
- Leader Hugo Chavez decided to make a half hour time change... so we did.
- We were some of the lucky athletes to have water running in our hotel.
- Average monthly income: US$200 and the groceries are expensive and hard to come by.
- We enjoyed the best papaya ever here.
- The USA cycling staff declined an offer to buy a turtle in the tech zone during the races.
Michael Broderick and Mary McConneloug
Team Kenda/Seven Cycles