As any of my riding friends or anyone who has read this blog probably knows, my last two races at Skyway Epic have more or less been disasters. At the 2012 race I managed to get sick to my stomach and eventually bonked bad, coupled with loads of leg cramps. At the 2013 race, I crashed more than once and also got off course twice. Both years I had subpar finish times and it has always bothered me. For 2014, my main goals were to finish with a better time than the previous years and do so safely with no crashes and no going off course. Luckily for me, things worked out OK.
I got up early on Sunday and headed down to Lake Howard in Sylacauga for the 8am start. None of my usual riding mates could make it, so it was just me for this one. I didn’t get there until almost 7:30, so I had just enough time to check in, add some Stan’s sealant to my tires, lube the chain, and kit up. Then it was time to start.
Like the first two years, we had a very short ride on pavement and grass until we hit the usual mass bottleneck at the trailhead. I wanted to play it safe this year, and I had no real motivation for going out hard, so I just tucked in near the back third of the group behind one of the female riders (would later find out it was Maaike Everts) and we rode at a fast-yet-casual pace. I was glad to have her set the speed so that I could watch her lines, as it had been a year since I was last on these trails and had basically forgotten everything about them. Lee Neal ended up right behind me and we rode together until the trail turned to dirt road and then eventually to the first aid station.
Lee was on a singlespeed, so eventually I had pulled away on the flats and low-sloped downhills since he was spinning out his one gear to its limit while I enjoyed all 20 of mine. The long, gradual uphill began at around the 16-mile mark with a few rollers, turning steeper at around mile 20. Not sure where exactly the official KOM point was, but the high point came at around mile 22 or 23. Then it was a constant up-down-up-down along some really ragged jeep roads until the turnaround point. After a quick bottle refill and some gels, it was time to turn around.
By now Lee had bridged back up to me and we rode more or less together after the final aid station. I say more or less because he would drift away on the hills thanks to his one gearing option being taller than my low gears, and then I would bridge back to him on the flats and descents thanks to my high gears. He was a super nice dude to be riding with though, and it helped to be able to watch his line on a few of the treacherous sections of jeep road. By the time we turned off of Wiregrass and back onto the last trails, I was beginning to get some crampy tightness in my quads and had to scale it back to some really low gears, which caused me to lose touch with the group we were in at that time….especially at the creek crossing, where I hit a rock wrong and got stopped in the water and had to walk out rather than maintain riding momentum.
Having nobody in sight behind, and just one other rider (from Bike Link Racing) in front of me I just took it easy until my legs felt strong enough to push the pace without cramping. By the time I hit the last few miles of singletrack I was feeling really good, especially knowing that the race was almost over. I pulled through the finish line with plenty of strength left, albeit with a sore neck and a headache (likely from dehydration), and was glad to see that I beat my previous year’s time by 50 minutes.
Knowing that I had some leftover energy and felt good, I shoulda/coulda picked up the speed a bit on a few of the long climbs and on the return leg of Wiregrass. But really I’m happy with how I finished considering my sole objectives were to have fun, stay safe, and beat my previous times…..all of which were accomplished. I got to ride and chat with some good folks along the way, and the Succeed S-caps tablets that I took (2 per hour, on the hour) did all I needed them to do in terms of fighting off my usual leg cramps. Plus, with the weather being partly cloudy and ranging from probably upper 50s to lower 70s, it absolutely could not have been any nicer outside. In addition to my trusty S-caps, I think what might have made the most positive difference for me this year was the fact that I decided just a few hours earlier to put my cadence sensor on my mountain bike (normally it’s on my cross/road bike). This allowed me to drop into a lower gear to save muscle fatigue, while at the same time forcing me to be cognizant of my cadence so that I could keep it up around 85 to 95. Normally I’m a heavy gear masher, utilizing higher gears at a cadence of around 65 to 70, which just wears my legs down over the course of a long race like this one. But at a cadence of 90 on the hills, I was able to hit the flats feeling much fresher without the need for long recovery time.
Once again Brent Marshall and his crew pulled off a really fun event. It was just as hard, and just as body-beating as I remember from the previous years, but it was still a lot of fun. And the guys/gals from COGS really did a great job of keeping the trails maintained and in race-ready shape.
No pics are posted yet to the Skyway Epic facebook page, but if/when they are I will link them up. My strava data can be found here.
Race Map – notice the major elevation change throughout the center of the race