Cross Country Runners and Mountain Bike Racers

August 30, 2013


BikeMonkey Post
The sport of cross-country running is a fine one. I mean, who doesn’t get behind a brisk run in the woods for 5 km at a stretch? So much more interesting than going around a 400 m track or running on the city streets.

Cross-country features paths and forest roads, asphalt and grass sections. Up hill and down dale. Sometimes it gets a little narrow and the footing can be slippery or rocky…but for the most part it isn’t all that technical. We’re not talking parcour here.

As with most running, there’s no cheating, faking or room for much strategy. You run your race, you work your pace and you try to outrun the rest of the pack. Guys who were fastest on my cross-country team in highschool were the fastest on the road and the fastest on the track. There was maybe a tiny margin for guys who were slightly lighter to put the relative hurt on in the climbs, for some guys to downhill slightly faster or for the longer and shorter limbed to have slight advantages on the curvy or the straight. But the margins were slim.

Fast is fast in running.

Mountain biking is a different story although the differences from running aren’t as extreme as in road cycling. MTB racing tends to be a bit more of a solo effort with little advantage to be gained from sitting in a giant pack of riders. And as with cross-country running, the terrain varies from asphalt to grass to trails. Wide fire-roads and single-track paths, smooth, rutted or rockey. Sustained miles of mountain ascending, short power-climbs and flat terrain. What is up must come down and you have to be good at getting a little sideways now and again.

I always was about 10 pounds over the top end of the ideal range for running and biking competition from highschool through college. Ascending climbs of any duration was never my strong suit. The MTB racing phase came along later in life and I’d put on a good 8 more pounds by that point. So the sustained climb of anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes duration that occurred in the typical MTB course was a big hurdle.

I was not usually in contention to win MTB races. Top 10 finishes tended to be my goal. Sometimes you just have to be realistic about your individual abilities within the competition you have chosen to join.

One race day we faced a course that started and finished with a paved park road, maybe a mile long. On the out-leg, the course jumped off the road to a track-and-a-half with a creek crossing right before the main climb. Which was steep. Being a MTB race, the pack rolled out kind of slowly on the paved road. No sense in pulling the peleton along with you in a MTB race, right?

About 300 m from the start of the trail section, I just nailed it. Like a sprint finish, I mean. I’m sure everyone else thought I was insane…but there wasn’t anyone near me until I was well into the climb. Per usual, the climbers eventual caught and passed me and I kind of lost track of how many folks were in front of me. With multiple start groups on the same course, it can be hard to tell when you are just buried trying to go fast. The downhill section was pretty technical and I am sure I passed some folks here and there, some with flat tires. But still no idea what the race looked like until I crossed the line first.

It turned out the hole shot was everything in that particular race. The most important thing was getting a big enough lead at the start that my deficits at climbing were minimized. Anyone smart enough to get on my wheel at the beginning couldn’t get by and took a big face full of creekwater and a bad line. Climbers who reacted too late, or were caught up in the pack, let me have a few extra precious minutes on the climb. Then, in the rest of the course the matter was decided by the other parts of the MTB racer’s skill set. Descending, handling, power climbs and the final hammer to the finish on paved road. Some of those things were to my advantage.

Minimize the impact of your deficits so that your strengths can carry your through. Sometimes this requires advance planning* to pull off. It almost always benefits from full commitment to the initial move.

Somewhere, between cross country running and MTB racing, there is a lesson for science careers.
___
*yeah, I’d planned the holeshot when I previewed the course earlier.

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