Most bike races hit out on a course of a predetermined length. Either it’s a set distance around a course or its a bunch of laps on a shorter course. Criteriums offered an interesting twist on this theme with what is often a set amount of time, plus three laps. While I found it intriguing to ask myself how many laps we might cover in 45 minutes, the way average speeds varied from course to course, I never really tried to calculate just how many laps my field would execute. The question was more interesting when left unanswered.
Timed mountain bike races take all of that and turn it on its head. Bike Monkey’s Wente is one of these events. Held at the Wente Scout Camp in rural Mendocino County (I know, that’s a redundant turn of phrase), outside the village of Willits, Wente is an eight-hour race held on an eight-mile course.
The upshot of such a strategy is that all but the very strongest riders are forced to accept that what they are racing is the course, that their competition resides almost entirely within their brain. Being fast, or attempting to be fast, is a given. However, the demands of an eight-hour race shuffle both ambition and priorities. The question ceases to be, “How fast can I go?” and becomes, “How many laps can I complete?” Speed really only becomes relevant when discussing who else from your category is on your lap.
Memory is a funny thing. The certitude of eyewitness testimony notwithstanding, I have ample evidence that given enough time (say two years), I can completely change basic details. I mean, there’s not a lot of difference between the number seven and the number eight. There is, however, a rather significant difference between 56 and 64, which happens to be the distance covered in either seven or eight laps of the Wente course.
I mention this because in the weeks coming up to Wente ambition hijacked my memory and caused me to think that when I did the race two years ago, I finished eight laps. No such thing happened. (I mean, other than in my faulty memory.) I placed demands on myself as a result of that lousy data. I decided that I would need to at least equal the number of laps I’d previously finished, but would be a good deal happier if I could add one lap to my total. To cover nine laps of the Wente course requires a racer to finish eight laps in less than eight hours and start a ninth before 4:00 pm. This is no small feat. Only handful of people, pros mostly, manage to complete 10 laps. Considering that most riders compete in two- or three-person teams, anyone who circles the Scout camp more than five times is considered firm, if not hard.
Honestly, six laps is enough to earn raised eyebrows and a fist bump (there are no high-fives post-race because everyone’s palms are hamburger), but I’ll get to why I know this to be true a bit later.
There’s a weird factor that influence’s nearly everyone’s ambition at Wente, and that is the course itself. I can’t think of a single circuit race or crit I ever did where following the end of the race I thought, “Gee, I sure would like to do another lap,” or, if I was utterly destroyed (which happened a lot), “Man, I really wish I was strong enough to knock out another lap.” It absolutely never happened.
With Wente, nearly half the course is flow trail. Bermed switchbacks, rises and wrinkles make up the back half of the course. The trails are so well designed that even the uphill portions are enjoyable. I swear.
So completing a lap is to have had fun. And if you’ve been quick enough to hit that singletrack as part of a group, watching riders ahead hit turns a moment before entering them is next-order amusement. Crazy as that sounds, it’s a truth that only can be denied by someone who hasn’t ridden the course.
What this points to, of course, is that the Wente course is the extra-large pizza you try to finish on your own and riders are noticeably more willing to head back out on the course knowing that if they can just enter the forest, the effort will be worth it.
The first day of summer
Ask me when summer starts and I’ll tell you the third week of June. Ask me when summer arrived and I’ll tell you last Saturday.
I’m not what you’d call slow, but certain day-to-day details can escape me. People have termed me a navel-gazer, a daydreamer, someone with his head in the clouds. Call it what you will, but my head can be elsewhere if the details at hand aren’t that important. Of course, some things that seem unimportant don’t always stay that way. At the start of the race, temperatures were still in the 50s. But in Northern California, mercury can shoot through 10 degrees in a half hour. By the time I finished my first lap, I didn’t need arm warmers anymore, but I was too focused on keeping my pit time short and forgot to take my arm warmers off. Back out I went, and as I rolled through the start/finish, thought to pull them down to my wrists. How I was going to remain comfortable over the next seven hours isn’t a question that occurred to me.
Even Bike Monkey’s CO, Carlos Perez managed to make it out for a lap.
Lap two is where the race shifts from the backlog traffic stress of the first lap to the opportunity to ride at a pace that matches that of the riders around you. There’s a rush that comes from entering flow trail following three or four other riders. The experience is qualitatively different than entering on your own. Think of it as ESP for the visual set; there’s something to seeing the rider ahead of you ride up a berm and drop back to flatter ground a moment before you yourself do it. We’re wired to model movements in our head that we see performed, so by the time I had the chance to hit the berm, my brain had already done it at least once before, making my physical trip up the side of the turn something of an echo. Even now, I get goosebumps thinking about it.
My local mountain bike club, Annadel Mountain Bike Group, which is definitely a social party with a mountain biking issue, had encamped on the north side of the lake and set up a series of three pop-up tents just across the dirt road from camp. It was a genius move, provided you gave ascent to the idea that making sure that every racer was forced to pass their gauntlet of amusement with each lap was, in fact, a genius move. I, for one, did.
You’d think that stopping and putting a foot down to fuel up would be out of the question, but by the time I started the third lap any thought I had of keeping pace with this rider or staying ahead of that rider had evaporated like so much water on a dusty road. Honestly, by the time I was into my third lap I was wondering where all the other riders had gone; I was able to take whole descents without encountering another competitor. I really was racing only against myself. Whew.
In the pop-ups were a series of banquet tables with foam-core dividers taped in place. Each of the solo racers associated with AMBG (the group is sufficiently chill to let someone wear whatever jersey they want and still benefit from their setup, so long as you party with them) got a roughly 16 x 24-inch section of table to keep bottles, food, sunscreen, etc. With each lap, I’d pull into the pits, down a gel, drink as much of a bottle as I could, pop a couple of chews, swig a bit more bottle and then head out. The pattern worked well enough, until I finished the fourth lap, at which point I felt like I was a 1970s G.I. Joe and the elastic bands holding my arms and legs to my body had just come apart.
Honestly, I knew I wasn’t doing well even before I got to the pits. There’s a brief climb to get out of the conifer forest and back to the road. It’s only a mile and it climbs at a most reasonable three percent overall, but even in the final turns it’s easy to get bogged down and feel like the course is muddy, not dusty.
Once in the pits I looked for a place to sit and when I couldn’t find an unoccupied chair, I leaned against the table and savored some Skratch Labs chews and worked on my bottle. While my cooler was too big for a spot in the pits, I’d grabbed a plastic bin from home and put my bottles in it and covered them with ice so I wouldn’t be drinking hot tea. I can imagine that Skratch’s Green Tea with Matcha and Lemon would be nice with pork fried rice if heated to about 120 degrees, but I wanted my bottles chilled to … well whatever was possible.
I spent a solid half hour drinking and just cooling off. At the time however, I really wasn’t thinking that I was hot, just that I wanted cold drinks, and that may or may not have been a telling experience.
It gets easier, or not
When I think of the great many hills I’ve done repeatedly, hills I’ve gotten to know so well that I have the best line memorized, that I know when to gut out an increase in pitch, I recall how my intimacy came to make those hills shorter. Somehow, no matter how many times I do the opening climb of Wente, it hasn’t gotten any easier. There are several reasons that serve to humble me in this. First is the fact that the climb is just a bit longer than a mile and ascends fewer than 400 vertical feet. That’s nothing. I should be over that instantly, right? The dirt road passes through forest of mostly oaks, with occasional sun-splashed clearings. A short singletrack digression serves as an hors d’oeurvres to coming attractions, and exits into a tree-lined meadow. The intense sunlight is startling and the briefly rolling terrain on double-track feels like an unkept promise once you know that a 13-percent ramp stands between you and the opening descent.
Looking at the map of the course on Strava doesn’t do it justice. There are dozens of turns, kinks and twists that just aren’t properly captured by GPS and that frustrates me because I’m just geeky enough that I’d be willing to go through the course and count each and every turn. There has to be several hundred turns, at minimum. I’m just not sure if we’re talking 300 or 500. And considering the course goes from dusty and sandy over hardpack, to hardpack, to loose and crumbly to hero dirt, to sandy to hero dirt and back to dusty, I had to stay on top of my skills with every single bend in the trail. This wasn’t the brutal challenge of the steeps the way Lake Sonoma is. Wente is a course that is entertaining, no matter how hammered you are.
But eventually, everyone taps out. The men’s pro winner, Glenn Fant, the owner of NorCal Bike Sport, the Bike Peddler and Trail House turned 10 laps fast enough that he could have started an 11th lap and almost certainly finished it as well. Instead, he went to the hospital for three bags of saline. And I’m not sure the mercury ever reached 90 degrees.
Even as I started my final lap, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to manage a seventh, no matter how much I wanted it, or an eighth. I just didn’t have the legs and I still couldn’t tell why. I had endurance the way Robert Plant had swagger. But the I had power the way the nation of Burkina Faso does. At one point on the backside of the course, I came together with two other riders just as a much faster rider from one of the three-men team approached from behind. We all pulled together to let him by without so much as a pause in his pedal stroke and then stared at each other, trying to figure out who should roll out first. I won’t call it an argument, but we were only one chipmunk shy of a Chip and Dale routine.
No, I insist, after you.
There’s a moment deep in the hindquarters of the course where following a number of zippy bermed switchbacks, some with high entries, you encounter a section of trail that twists like so much knotted garden hose. The trail bends left, rises, then drops and swoops into a bermed right hand flick that rises and immediately bends left before dropping again. Somehow, I had enough awareness of where I was in my day that I cradled a moment of sadness that I wasn’t going to hit that sequence again any time soon. It’s hard to consider doing any other event with this so close to home.
Builder Curtis Inglis was cheering near the final switchbacks that lead to the road back to the start/finish. He shouted for me then gave me a push to the exit of the trail. I tried to outpedal his push, but the attempt was laughable. A fellow behind me called out, “Hey, where’s my push?!”
We pedaled with all we could muster, him making a mad sprint just 20 meters from the line. It didn’t even occur to me to sprint. The finish area rang with the cacophony of music and cheering. It was such a noise and my body was so shut down they could have been booing me and I’d never have noticed.
Trail czar Kevin Smallman is the genius behind the course.
I made my way back to the pits, dropped my bike and as friends started to talk to me I held up a single finger, index, not middle. I walked to an open patch of grass, bent over and put my hands on my knees and waited. It’s been more than 20 years since I last thought I’d throw up following a race and the feeling hit me repeatedly, waves crashing against my stomach for another 45 minutes.
Even if I’d puked, the day would have been worth it. The party that night was as much fun as I’ve had since college.
Images: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal
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