4/27/14. Well, I did it. First race since my injury/surgery in the books. Whew!!!
The race went pretty much as I expected. I was nervous as hell about my shoulder and just about getting back out there after so long. I have definitely lost some confidence riding aggressively on singletrack- racing, really- and I knew there would be a bit of that to work out.
The day before the race there was a wicked blizzard on the course. I felt bad for the amateurs who were out there racing on Saturday, they were really hardcore and some of them ended up with hypothermia. I'm not sure I would have been so into that. But as luck would have it, the day of the pro race was bright and sunny, though chilly, and the course was tacky and fast. I was glad as it had been extremely loose just two days prior.
When the weather cleared Saturday evening, I went out to do a bit of preriding. I had my first real crash since my injury crash. It was a good one too. I hung up my bike in between some rocks going fast, and flew off into the rocky gully below. Tuck and roll. Dang me! It was sort of exciting and I stabbed myself in the quad with a rock, but otherwise I was fine. I tok a deep breath and tried not to let it shake me too much. It was good to get that first crash out of the way- I had been dreading it, although I had crashed my bike a thousand times in my life without incident, until that one time. This time wasn't so bad. I rode the section a few times cleanly but didn't feel confident, so I practiced doing it with a fast cyclocross style dismount and remount. I timed myself and it actually didn't cost me more than two seconds. This was a huge lesson I learned from my Nationals crash: It is good to have options.
The race on Sunday morning started at a pretty mellow pace on the pavement. I settled in to mid-pack and watched for people going up the road. Last year there were attacks going pretty early on the road climbs, and I was ready, but nothing went until we turned on to the 4WD road. Then the pace got hot and things broke up instantly. I was still sitting about mid-pack, and then we hit the singletrack going fast. I instantly got tight and nervous and started blowing corners. Oops. I backed off a bit and let myself get used to the feel of riding at speed with lots of other racers around me.
When we came to the rocky section where I had crashed the day before, since I was already feeling a little shaky, I decided to take the safe route. I leapt off my bike mid-stroke, one step before the section. I was up and over the obstacle, throwing my leg back over my bike and pedaling away without missing a beat or throwing off the rider behind me. Good, that was easy. Cyclocross skills come in handy sometimes.
Descending loose, steep terrain with tight switchbacks has never been my strong suit, and I lost quite a bit of time on this long descent section as I was still riding pretty tentatively. I knew if something was going to be hard on my shoulder or throw me off my bike, it would be this section. I made it down fine and now I had some catching up to do as I was passed by quite a few riders on the loose descent.
At the bottom of the long Skull Valley road climb I settled in for the grind. It was hot by this point and unfortunately I had hit the climb alone, so it would be a long and lonely slog. I was able to stay focused, and I started making up time and passing some riders. I resisted the urge to surge when I saw that I was catching someone, thinking to myself don't burn your matches, save them for later. I got my feed from Jess near the top of the climb, and saw a rider ahead of me shortly before the singletrack. Now was the time to burn a match. I surged, scooted past the rider and on to the last section of trail. This was my favorite. I was ready to have some fun.
Somewhere on that road climb, I remembered how to ride a bike. This second section of singletrack felt like a night and day difference from the first one. I was riding fast, with confidence, and feeling the flow of the trail, riding playfully and catching air off small rocks and bumps. I have not had that feeling since I have been back on the bike, and it felt good. It felt natural... like coming home.
When I finished, I was happy to have that first race behind me. My time was much slower than last year's, and my placing was not wonderful, but I was happy with the way I rode and the decisions I made along the way. I knew I was going to be tentative at first, and I couldn't fight that and pretend it didn't exist. I had to let it work itself out, and it did. I knew that it would. My shoulder felt good and strong and gave me confidence that all the work that I have put into rehab is paying off. I was able to stay focused mentally and remain steady even when I didn't feel confident on the terrain, when I knew that riders were passing me, and on the long hot road climb alone when I had to slowly work my way back.
I am glad to have this one in the books. It feels great to be back after nine months away. I know that it can only get better, and I am looking forward to the rest of the season. I appreciate the wonderful support I have gotten from all of my sponsors, from my coach Alison, and from my friends and family out there rooting me on from "home." Thanks for giving me this amazing opportunity to live this incredible life.