THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UPPERS AND DOWNERS

Our resident contrarian getting his XC on in Grand Junction.

Our resident contrarian getting his XC on in Grand Junction.

By Nick Mardi 


Spending all of my teenage years riding freestyle BMX (dirt, park, street), I think I have a bias towards descending.  I’ve never been an endurance / fitness guy, until recently I’ve been 6’1 210+ lbs (since February I’ve managed to lose 25 lbs and I’m currently 189). I’ve never really had the body type for it.  I’ll try to be impartial and unbiased reviewing my first XC (endurance) race and comparing it to my experiences with the Enduro scene. 

" It felt like a big deal."

I’ve ridden bikes as long as I can remember, competed in BMX Freestyle comps, but never got into racing.  In the last 5 years I’ve done two Enduro races.  Finishing poorly and very well respectively in the amateur class.  While they have a lot of their own problems, the vibe is vastly different from my experience recently at a technical 40 mile XC endurance race. 

My first impression was the venue.  The last Enduro race I attended in Moab had 3 tents, one factory team (local), a local pizzeria, a DJ tent and no rider support other than a few aid stations.  The XC race took over main st. and had blocks of sponsor tents, a semi-truck from SRAM, a sprinter van from Shimano, a Stan’s booth, and probably a lot of other venders I overlooked.  Lots of bystanders and enthusiasts walking the street.  It felt like a big deal. 

This was also my first time wearing bibs.  I’m still not sure how you’re supposed to go to the bathroom.  Did I mention this was my first XC race?  I’ve been riding my ass off this year with Strava telling me I have nearly 100k of climbing and I’m over 750 miles.  I think that’s pretty good for someone who doesn’t use a trainer or a road bike and is usually on a 6” travel 32 pound bike.  Still, unsure what to expect, I lined up about 2/3rd’s back.  Now that you know my riding style preference I’m fittingly doing this race on a Tallboy 3 with a fairly burly build aside from tires, that comes in at just a hair under 30 pounds. It still feels lightning quick compared to my 6” bike, especially with carbon wheels and lightweight tires.  No mistake though, it’s no XC weight weenie with a 150mm dropper, 130mm Fox 34, 2.35 tires, platform pedals, and Sram Eagle drive train.  In current configuration it has around a 68* HTA.  Solidly in the short travel trail bike category.

 "I responded with yelling, wheelies, and dirt bike noises."

The race starts and the first few miles are on the road and I’m generally passing people even though I mistakenly have my suspension open.  While on the single track the first climb was about 8 miles and 1300’ of elevation.  I’m still generally passing, excited about the technical down where I think I will have a distinct advantage.  After spiking my heart rate a little and making a mental note to pace myself, I’m now at the first descent.  Dropping about 800’ over 4 miles with quite a few techy rock sections including some exposure.  This is what I’ve been waiting for and this is where the disappointment sets in.  At the top of the climb I find myself behind a middle aged brunette woman who looks to be less than half my size and climbs like a billy goat on steroids.  Disappoint sets in, in the first half mile of descending, where I’ve been asking to pass repeatedly while the woman walks every technical rock feature and the line behind me of riders and walkers is growing.  After my requests being ignored (I saw you looking back at me and my brakes sounded like a gang of angry geese) for what felt like at least a half of a mile I was finally able to make a pass by going over a hip height rock drop that was responded to with a scream.  This is where I was supposed to be making up time and I’ve passed one person.  It’s time to climb again.  Not good. 

In an Enduro race if you happen upon a slower rider despite the 30-60 second time delay requesting a pass is almost always greeted with the other person immediately moving to the side or stopping to allow it (usually along with words of encouragement).  This is apparently not the case in XC racing.  The first thought that crossed my mind was memories of “spirited” motorcycle track days in advanced group with lax passing rules from my 20’s.  The other was the amount of money and time most of these XC racers have invested in ultra light carbon, skin tight spandex, fitness and conditioning yet lack even intermediate level bike skills.  To be clear here MTBproject rates the most difficult trail in the course blue/black.  Yes there were technical features but, none that seemed necessary for a group of people who willingly spend $10,000+ on carbon and who knows how many hours on a trainer/road bike/out establishing a solid endurance base to repeatedly dismount and walk in a race.  The irony here actually made me giggle at times throughout the morning.  After a series of ups and downs (with many more disappointments) I took full solace in the awesome vibe from the crowd handing out bacon, beer, and heckling!  I responded with yelling, wheelies, and dirt bike noises.

"Yes there will most likely be a next time, at least for this specific race."

The course then took us to a large jeep road climb that was about 7 miles in length with 2,000’ of climbing and not much to keep me interested or occupied.  This came about 20 miles in and started to mentally break me a little.  Without being allowed to listen to headphones I tried striking up conversations.  I never did find my “group match” and seemed to constantly be passing/passed by different groups of people throughout the ups and downs.  This made it difficult to strike up a conversation.  With quite a few people that I tried to pace just ignoring my, “hey how’s it going”.

Finally reaching the end of the climb I was greeted by a steep rocky descent that, while being a jeep road, I was able to pass a lot of the people that had bested me on the climb.  After an aid station, it was another nearly 1000’ climb over a little more then a mile, then mostly descending for the final 14 miles.  In these final miles I witnessed a middle age man run a woman half his age (from a different distance race) off the trail by a hard pass after not even making his presence known.  After a somewhat techy section and watching how this guy acted I found motivation to push it enough to request a pass on him.  Of course greeted by quick glances over his shoulder and eventually jumping off his bike and short cutting a technical switchback to stay in front of me.  More laughter ensued.  I did eventually pass him in a wider area of trail.  This is the middle of the pack in amateur right?  I’m fairly certain that reaching the podium of amateur (that occurred over an hour ago at this point) resulted in a free bottle of booze.  The rest of the race was pretty uneventful and I was happy with myself finishing almost dead middle of the pack out of a little over 100 racers and more importantly no nutritional issues and only very minor cramping.  I ended up skipping 3 out of 4 aid stations (I’m stubborn, competitive, and probably not very smart) but finished the race with way too much food in my top tube bag.  Lessons learned for next time.  Yes there will most likely be a next time, at least for this specific race.  

Goals for 2018; Increase the fun factor, develop the fitness to push hard enough in the beginning of the race to push ahead of the majority of the group and be able to really open up on the descents.  Maybe I’ll buy a trainer this winter and lose more weight.

"Enduro brahhhh!"

The Cliff note comparison: In my experience the Enduro crowd is outgoing, supportive, younger, more relaxed, “run what you brung” and no one is wearing just their underwear.  With the reputation the “Enduro” crowd gets online this also made me giggle.  Dare I say there’s a jealousy between the skill disparity in the two disciplines?  After all, fitness is only a time commitment to a road bike and a starvation diet away right?  On the other hand the XC crowd is mostly middle aged, rich white men wearing matching skin tight underwear that are, “NOT NOW CHIEF I’M IN THE ZONE.. OH MY GOSH, that looks scary I better be careful and play it safe!”

Obviously there’s bad apples in every group, but this is just my overall initial impression.  I’m doing another XC race in the near future and am interested to see if there is a difference in vibe with a change in venue.  I’ll probably stick with endurance races because it’s a competitive way to keep myself in shape and the fitness really does wonders for going fast at Enduros.  When it comes to venues the XC race crushed the Enduro scene!  The Enduro race had a cooler full of cheap beer and a dude with a speaker/microphone and a macbook.  The XC race was complete with multiple stages with live bands, beer tents, food, vendors beer tents, hot chicks, and more beer tents.  On second thought, maybe I’ll just start frequenting these XC events to drink ice cold beer and heckle the spandex crowd.  Feel free to send me hate mail, I’ll be too busy to read it because of full face helmets, baggy clothes, skidding, riding with boom boxes and “ultra-uber loud house music” (I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote from 303TM), ignoring uphill traffic, you know.… Enduro brahhhh!