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The late spring flurry

July 2, 2008

OK, I am getting ready to go out on my first two laps of a 24-hour race in Madrid, Spain. It's the first 24-hour race ever in Spain, Trek is the sponsor, and the turnout is good.

This will be my third 24-hour race in a month, so I guess you could say my racing season has officially started. A few weeks ago I raced on a masters team in West Virginia and we got third, which was a fine thing. Karl Rosengarth from Dirt Rag helped with the organisation and James Shiflett and Charles Rush joined in the suffering. We also imported a pro wrench to help deal with the muddy mess, Sarah Hansing, which turned out to be a good thing. I broke my bike one way or another every lap.

Did you know that the Shimano organic brake pads have a very limited life in mud? They are the best pads for stopping feel and power, so this is not a diss in any way, except their abrasion resistance. I used them on a ride in Baltimore and then on a training lap around the course at Big Bear, and everything was fine. When I pulled them in a twisty high speed corner on the first lap the levers went to the bars and nothing happened. Then I hit the tree. Ouch. I managed to get around the course pumping them constantly. Then there was a mashed derailleur when I fell on a root, and then, and then. You get the idea.

I went out for a crab massacre dinner in Baltimore afterwards. I am not going to try to explain - ask a local when you are in the area.

Then I came over to ride in Mountain Mayhem in the UK. It's the largest 24-hour race I am aware of, and I rode it with Chipps and Dr. John, a singlespeed ace from Scotland. Our fourth team-mate fell off and broke his wrist the day before the race so we were down a rider from the start. Since this was more of a social occasion than a serious race we got some guest riders to fill in for a few laps, and everything was going well, until it started raining.

Yeah, it was the first day of summer, give or take a few, and it was pissing down rain with gale winds. The laps in the mud were very difficult, and some of the very good new singletrack they added was in clay and that became off camber grease when it was wet. In the end it dried back out though and we finished on a wonderfully fast course in the sunshine. Wisely, I took the tequila shot hand up Dr. John was offering (along with the customary heckle) after I finished my last lap instead of just before the steep climb. It worked out...

Back to my first event of the year - a three stage race in France, the Gran Traversee du Limousin. This was my first time racing in France, and I wasn't really in shape to race, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

The event itself was great. It is not as big as some of the other multi-day races, but that is good in a way. It was very well organised, took place in a beautiful place, with rolling hills, lots of woody singletrack, and, of course, amazing dinners after each stage. The stages were 70 to 80 km long and the emphasis was on mountain bike racing, not road racing on dirt. In fact, there was more singletrack on the first stage of the GTL than there was in some of the other prestigious eight-day races like the Transalp or Cape Epic. I don't mean in a stage. There was more singletrack in the GTL's first stage than there was in the entire eight days of the others.

I suspected the food was going to be, well, French, which means great, and I could tell that was right from the first plate of veg that showed up at dinner - a massive plate of roasted beets, carrots and Puy lentils, then grilled steak (Limousin is famous for beef) with a little (just a little) red wine. The incentive to get to the end of stages can often end up as thoughts of the meal waiting for you when you get there, and this was easy here.

The shorter stages were tough because of all the technical trails. But the earlier finishing time let everyone recover and lay around a bit after each stage.

It rained prior to the event so the first day was muddy, the second less so as the mud dried up, and the last a bit less still. I played around with tires in these conditions, as I often do, and decided to take a gamble. I started the race with some very smooth, fast tires (a pair of 2.2 Super X Tubeless Ready) set to very low inflation pressure. They were great the first day. The mud was liquid and the tires found the bottom of most of the deeper holes. They hooked up on all of the rooted climbs and descents too. I felt in good control of the bike all the time, which was a little surprising. I had not been riding off road much prior to this race, and hadn't ridden in mud since last summer in Germany.

The next day the mud started drying out a little, and things were not as good. The tires slid around more in some of the drying patches of mud. But overall they were still working well and probably were better than a full knobby tire. The third day was fairly dry except for some very deep accumulations in the low spots by fields, and nothing would have worked well in those.

Some other discoveries - amateur racers in France are fast. Young and old, doesn't seem to matter, they are hauling ass at the front of the race. I guess that shouldn't be much of a surprise; they have been riding and racing over there for a few years I hear! And they are not all roadies - they ride technical trails well. The Creuse Oxygene (the organisers) team of espoirs were blazing fast. They hung back on the first stage so they could ride through the field, which didn't take them very long. One of the guys racing towards the front was KOM at Paris-Nice too. I came away with a lot of respect for the entire field of racers in this event, and the organisers too.

It might be a long haul for US riders but if you were in England and needed something to do early season, this one would be a fine way to get some early season exercise. Search around for Creuse Oxygene for the details and some photos from the race this year.

I drove around in France a little afterwards and, as one does there, tried some of the local food here and there. This is a good thing to do of course. The most interesting was Gâteau de Foies de Volaille à la Tomate, a chicken liver mousse with a tomato sauce. I have tried to cook it a few times and am getting close, but not close enough to write down a recipe yet.

The other cool thing was checking out the chicken farms around Bourg en Bresse. I am thinking about keeping chickens, not just eating them, so this was important agricultural research. They do in fact lead very good, free-range chicken lives. The DOC the chicken farmers earned there is the real thing. Industrial chicken farms are a disgrace.

OK, the first guy out on my team, Antonio, was leading the race for three laps. This one is going to be a little harder than the last race in England I guess. I have a few more minutes to type before I have to get ready. It's +100F outside and I am a little concerned about my tendency to fry in heat, so I am going to ride conservatively until it cools off a little. Heat is not my specialty, but I'll have to try to get it right this time.

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Keith Bontrager is best known as the bike and component design guru behind his eponymous road and mountain bike components, but behind the scenes the man universally known as KB is an enthusiastic and well-respected endurance mountain bike racer. KB has taken part in a over 50 24-hour races in the last few years, and in his diary takes us inside the mental, physical and technical challenges of long-distance mountain bike racing, starting with one of the sport's greatest tests, the seven-day TransRockies Challenge.