BT Epic 2017

Last January I accidentally bought another bike. For those  keeping track (like my husband), that makes three mountain bikes (four if you count my first, a 26" base model hardtail, which I now consider Jeff's), but that's OK because this one is a rigid singlespeed, and I didn't have one of those.

Bike people joke that the correct number of bikes to own is N+1, where N=the number of bikes you currently own. An alternate equation is N-1, where N=the number of bikes that would cause your spouse to divorce you, and this most recent purchase might have fit better under the latter formula.

I'd gone to the outdoor expo with no plans beyond spending a miserably rainy day at least walking around bike-related stuff and went home with a new bike mostly because

a) it was pretty
b) it was super light
c) I could afford it
d) I'd heard that riding a singlespeed would make me a better climber
e) did I mention how light it is?

I rode it for the first time the following weekend, jumping into the singlespeed world with 25 miles on the Ozark Trail; despite my belated fears that I'd hate the bike  I learned that I'm stronger than I give myself credit for, and only having one gear meant that I never screwed up a hill because of a misshift. I still have to walk some hills, but I don't think I do any/much more on the new bike than on my geared ones, and when I can stay on the bike I'm definitely faster.

Actually, riding a fully rigid bike was a much bigger adjustment than the singlespeed thing. What I gained in uphills is tempered by increased timidity on downhills, but the fact that the new bike is 12 pounds lighter than my full-suspension MTB was a worthwhile trade-off. It immediately became my favorite bike, so when BT Epic registration time came I signed up in the singlespeed category.

Unlike 2016, when I spent a ton of the summer on the Ozark Trail, 2017 has been significantly lighter on miles overall and mountain biking in particular. As a cherry on top of the sub-par training sundae, two weeks before BT Epic I did Spotted Horse, a 150-mile gravel sufferfest. I knew I could finish BT Epic, but given the change in bike and lower training volume, I wasn't counting on any PRs.


Once again I camped with Chuck and Lori before the race, and while we missed our Orange Lederhosen friends, Scott and his cookie bars were a nice addition. I bought a race sweatshirt at check-in, hoping I wasn't jinxing myself -- I already have a 2015 t-shirt I'll never wear -- but my normal pre-race terror didn't kick in until the next morning.

I woke up on race day, looked at all of the fit, strong people around me, and thought how little I belonged there. Riding the trail with a group of friends is fun, but in a group of 600, even when most of those people will be long gone before I hit the singletrack, my comfort level sinks to zero.

How I felt on race morning
Despite the advice of Mickey ("Don't be afraid to be awesome") and Eric ("use previous race results to figure out who you should line up near"), I once again slunk to the very back of the pack. My typical confidence deficit was exacerbated by my stress over the first gravel climb. I've ridden it on other bikes, but twice this summer I couldn't make it up on my singlespeed. Both times were about 30 miles in on super hot days, but I was definitely worried about having to walk it with so many witnesses to my shame.

Can't get much further back than this!
Photo credit: Matt Johnson, who was gracious enough to retake the original picture when my helmet looked stupid.
Leg 1: Bass to Brazil Creek ~ 10 miles 1:19

Happily, that dreaded climb was no problem on fresh legs, but that led to a new challenge. Caught behind lines of geared bikes spinning up the hill, I passed where I could and slow-motion pedaled when I couldn't pass. The singlespeed was less of an advantage when the road flattened out, but I was able to more or less hold my own until reaching the singletrack.

I felt a little shaky on the trail, and a couple people passed me there. Gaps would open on curvy sections, and then I'd close them as the trail straightened out. I'd practiced one sketchy downhill this summer; determined that this was the year I'd ride it, but when I neared that spot the trail was crowded with a line of people waiting to walk down it. Someday I might have the confidence to pass them and ride down the hill, but I'm not there yet.

Overall the trail felt much more crowded than last year, and as we turned onto the Berryman loop near Harmon Spring my relative strengths and weaknesses were on full display. Every downhill would see a big gap open between me and the riders ahead, and every climb would find me caught behind them. I definitely could have ridden that section faster if I hadn't been held up on the hills, but even if I'd had the confidence to pass I'm not sure I could have stayed far enough ahead on the climb to offset my more timid descending. I wasn't thrilled to be stuck behind a bunch of other people, but it would have been much worse mentally to have them all stuck behind me on a downhill.

I felt like I was riding faster and better than last year, when I remembered reaching the Brazil Creek aid station in 1:12, so I was disappointed to see my Garmin tick past that long before I got there. So it's not going to be a fast day, I told myself, and that's ok.

2016 vs. 2017: My memory was a little off. I actually reached Brazil 3 minutes faster this year than last year. I could definitely have increased that improvement with a better starting position to limit how many people I was caught behind. Things to work on for next year: definitely descending and passing.

Leg 2: Brazil Creek to Berryman Campground ~10 miles 1:23

I rolled through the aid station and headed up the next climb, where I was once again caught behind a slower rider. I knew him, so we chatted for a little while as we rode, but without being able to downshift I had a hard time following him and felt weird about asking to get around. Towards the top of the climb we had a brief rain shower, and when he pulled over to dry his glasses I went ahead and didn't see him again.

The throng of riders had spread out, so this leg was much less congested. There were so many people off to the side of the trail changing flat tires, and I was very thankful for my good luck. For the majority of the way to Berryman I felt super strong, though I started to wear down towards the end and had to walk a chunk of one climb.

Chuck, who I hadn't seen since the beginning gravel, caught me around here. While I was happy and unsurprised to see my friend, who's a far better technical rider than I am and much braver on downhills, I was also a little disappointed to have failed to hold him off. That said, he was the one who noticed that a woman we passed was the only other registered singlespeed girl. We rode together into Berryman Campground, where Lori had everything ready for us. "Help Kate first," Chuck told her, "She has a chance to podium."

As I told him, I actually didn't have a chance to podium, since there was no female SS category, but Lori filled my water bladder, switched out my bottles, and got me right out of there.

2016 vs. 2017: I was 15 minutes faster than last year and felt equally as good, and I was probably slightly more efficient with my stop.

Leg 3: Berryman Campground to Bass' River Resort ~ 20 miles 3:00

I rode the switchback I've had to walk in the past and had people stop in front of me on my other normal walk spots. I'd have had to walk them anyway, so it was nice to see that I'm not the only one who can't ride them. Each climb showed that my legs were wearing down; I no longer felt strong, but I never questioned whether I could finish the race. Walk when you have to, ride when you can.

I was walking more hills now, but I wasn't alone in that. Some people rode past, but others were pushing the same hills. I really wanted to get off my bike on the climb to Whiskey Ridge, but I could hear Jim Davis's yells and wasn't about to walk up to his group. Last year I skipped the whiskey stop; this year I asked myself, are you really so serious you can't stop and have a little fun?

Nope. Not that serious.
Photo credit: Jim Davis
The rest of the Berryman loop went quickly, and soon I was riding back past Harmon Spring and up the forest road to the gravel. This stretch of gravel is relatively flat, so I did my best to keep spinning along the road, but I definitely didn't make up time on anybody this year.

All too soon I was turning back onto the singletrack leading to the dreaded Three Sisters section of the OT. Sometime after Berryman Campground I'd realized that I might be able to meet my goal of finishing the race in under 7 hours, but it was going to be tight. I was pretty sure my previous best time on this segment was around 37 minutes, and I needed to be around there to keep that goal in reach.

Unfortunately, my legs overruled the "ride the Three Sisters faster" plan. I did probably more walking than ever before on that section, which was super disappointing after last year when the guys riding near me at this point said things like "you go ahead, you'll just pass us on the uphills anyway". I saw almost no one through here, and when I did they were doing the passing. Whatever, just keep moving. Finally I made it to the top of the final sister; from there it was all downhill back to Bass.

2016 vs. 2017: I rode this section 9 minutes faster than last year, which is pretty surprising considering how much walking I did. I didn't feel great at the end of it, but I still felt focused and determined.  

Leg 4: OT loop west of Bass ~ 8 miles 1:07

I think this was my fourth time riding up the Butts Road climb. It's paved, but that didn't make it feel any easier 40 miles into the race. I'd been psyching myself up for the climb, telling myself it wasn't as bad as the highway W climb, and I'd ridden that on a hot day after a bunch of singletrack miles. Despite my pep talks, once I hit the steepest part of the climb I had to get off and walk, chatting briefly with a couple of girls who passed me there.

I caught and passed them again once were were on the flatter gravel, then rode with Matt for a couple of minutes until I missed the turn onto the singletrack and he got ahead of me. He needed to be there anyway; as soon as the trail turned downhill he was gone, while I rode much more timidly in his wake. There are a couple of spots -- a tight double switchback and then two rock drops -- that I'm still afraid to ride, so when I heard the girls coming behind me I stepped to the side so they could ride by.

I've now ridden this section a few times, and having looked at the elevation profile before the race I knew there were really only two big climbs. Get through those and I'd be home free. I did a lot of pushing on the first climb, but I was able to ride a lot after that. Eventually I came across the girls again. One of them had crashed; she was ok, but she was over the race. "C'mon," I encouraged her, "There are only two big climbs in this section. Maybe this is the second one. We're almost there."

Thankfully, it actually was the second one. I was delighted to have to get off my bike soon afterwards for the stone step because I knew it came just before the trail crossed the gravel and turned downhill to the finish. I didn't exactly rail that last downhill mile, but I was only 2 seconds off my best time there, set last year on a full suspension bike.

2016 vs. 2017: I was a minute slower this year, a difference that could probably be attributed to walking part of the first climb and waiting for the two girls to pass me at the rock drops.. This was the once leg of the race where I didn't have any new best times, but I had just enough left to be pretty darn close.

I crossed the finish line at in 6:49, 26 minutes faster than last year. I was totally thrilled with that, especially having been unsure about how using a different bike would affect my time. It took a long time for the smile to fade from my face, and the race is still one of my peak race experiences for the year.

Once again I have plenty of room for improvement, chiefly in downhill courage and any remotely technical riding. I also had 21 minutes of non-moving time. I was pretty efficient at the two aid stations and didn't spend long at the whiskey stop, so that means all the other non-moving time was accumulated getting on/off my bike and getting out food and electrolytes. Improving my handling skills so I can do more of this on the bike would help, as would improving my fitness so I don't have to walk so many of the uphills.

Huge thanks to Lori for spending her day looking after Chuck and me, and also thanks to Becky from The Cyclery, who despite the fact that I race for another shop was totally willing to crew for me if I needed the help. I had a charmed day with no crashes, mechanicals, or nutritional mistakes, and near-perfect weather, but the biggest stroke of luck is having friends who take such good care of me.


Popular Posts