By Karen Brooks
So one fine day after I came back from some time off over the holidays, I found a package in my office mailbox:
What better way to commemorate such a gift than with a Team Dicky-style blog post? Here goes.
I eagerly opened the envelope to find a new and improved Awesome Strap Race, which I had heard about from Rich himself (he didn’t pass that task onto Sponsor Liaison and Equipment Acquisitions Director Admiral Ackbar). But also included was the Dicky-designed Tülbag, produced by Backcountry Research as well. Cool! Now I have a better way to carry pointy tools and other sharp objects in a wool jersey pocket.
(I don’t know what that “NYCO” tag is for. An ultra-advanced tire boot?)
I emailed my thanks to Mr. Dillen and said, “How did you know I wanted one of those things?” To which he replied: “Everybody wants some…” That is obviously my cue to include a metal video in this Dicky’esque post. This live version is nice. Warning: the mid-song monologue by Diamond Dave is NSFW.
As you might have read in his review in issue #158, Josh and I had a bit of trouble getting the Awesome Strap Hitch to fit, particularly on my bike. Of course I chose to not mess with it until we were getting ready to do a pre-ride shortly after arriving at the camp for the Trans-Sylvania Epic… no better time to futz with new equipment than when daylight is fading and you’ve got one chance to scope out a bit of trail before a weeklong stage race, eh? It was just a simple strap – how hard could it be? – but somehow my flat-fix things would not fit nicely under the saddle.
Josh tried in vain to get enough cell phone reception to watch Backcountry Research’s installation video. Then, who should come along to save the day but none other than celebrity spokesperson Rich Dillen. The pro strapper himself then proceeded to show us how it’s done, re-folding my innertube into a flatter shape and chastising me for using a too-large 40g CO2 cartridge.
Seen here is the Hitch installed using the somewhat-more-correct installation method. Note, however, that there isn’t much strap overlapping on the side for the sticky parts to stick the whole package together. It hasn’t budged, but still, more strap is always more better.
Of course, watching the helpful installation video now, I see what I was doing wrong… and am still doing wrong. But no matter. Richard Clark from Backcountry Research heard from Rich that I was having trouble, and he immediately set to work designing a new Strap that would avoid such trouble by making the sticking parts longer. How’s that for customer service?
Below is a photo showing the contents of the Hitch unwrapped. Apparently it’s protocol to include this photo. I think the point is to show how your Awesomely Strapped tube isn’t totally covered in muck – just a few small areas easily wiped off.
So now my bike is Awesomely Strapped, and with flames, no less. I will be so much faster with flames.
Can you tell what I was still doing wrong as of that photo? Hint: the installation video shows the CO2 cartridge on top of the tube, not to one side. This allows the tube to fit between the saddle rails and thus tuck in more neatly. Also, I left the flappy end of the tube hanging down – it should be facing the other way so as not to flap.
There is less mud in the later photo because it was taken after a bike washing and one ride, so what you’re seeing is the difference between two rides’ worth of mud and just one. It’s been Mudville around here, and not just because the Steelers lost.
And what kind of Dicky’esque post would this be without some mention of Team Dicky nemesis (and Dirt Rag contributor) Missouri… er, Montucky… er, Montana Miller? Not any kind I’d want to deal with. So: at the recent Dirty Dozen, I spotted Montana also using an Awesome Strap to hold his flat-fixing stuff under his seat. We were the only two with this sleek solution, in a sea of kitted-up, hardcore roadies.
Now, what else do I need for a Team Dicky’esque post? Probably some mention of the coming race season. Well, I liked the fact that in 2011, my races consisted of one that lasted five minutes (Massanutten Yee-Ha), one that lasted a week (TSE), my 20th 24-hour race (Seven Springs 24 Hour Champion Challenge), and my first Dirty Dozen. A good mix of short, long, old, and new, kinda like a wedding or something. I like that mix – think I’ll aim to repeat it in 2012. There, that’s done, “season” planned.
By Karen Brooks
Europe has been slow to catch the 29er wave, although a recent World Cup win by Czech racer Jaroslav Kuhlavy atop a 29er may change some minds. Orbea is one Euro company way ahead of the curve, having introduced their first 29er in 2005, and improving upon this early aluminum experiment by going carbon and incorporating design innovations from their road frames for the Alma in 2006. The current line of Alma 29ers shows off Orbea’s proficiency with both wonder fibers and big wheels.
Soul of the bike
The Alma, which means “soul” in Spanish, is one sexy bike, in a very Continental way, with its angular, sculpted lines highlighted by sleek, understated graphics and shiny red fittings. Underneath the Alma’s glossy white paint is a highly-engineered monocoque carbon frame. Each of the three frame sizes has a unique construction, with differing carbon layups, wall thicknesses, and tube diameters, to impart consistent ride characteristics. The construction process is a time and labor-intensive process, requiring multiple prototypes for each size.
Following Orbea’s previous 29ers, the goal is to maximize pedaling efficiency while offering a measure of vertical compliance via their 4×4 Triangle frame configuration, best summed up extra angles in the chai stays, near the rear dropouts, and in the top tube, just in front of the seat tube. Another goal is to play up the benefits of 29-inch wheels while minimizing their drawbacks, aiming for good traction with quick steering. To this end, Orbea uses the standard 29er geometry for companies who get it: short-as-possible chainstays (439mm in this case), combined with a bent seat tube, bottom bracket slightly lower than the axles, 65mm drop, and a short head tube (110mm) with top and down tubes merging well behind it. The 71.5-degree head tube angle keeps the steering snappy. An integrated, tapered headset adds to the clean and futuristic look.
All of the frame’s “tubes” can hardly be described as such, what with their various polygonal cross-sections. This Alma shares the original’s “fender” sculpted into the down tube, which actually does shield some spraying mud. There’s plenty of room in the rear for big tires—a Schwalbe Nobby Nic 2.35” fit no problem.
About those shiny red fittings. They do more than just look good, they serve to route the bike’s vascular system in an efficient manner. The head tube cable guide in particular is a stroke of genius, eliminating the possibility of cable rub marring the finish.
The 29er Alma’s elegant frame comes dressed in four different configurations, ranging from the $5,900 Team to the $3,200 S50. My S30 came with a 100mm-travel Reba 29 RLT, Shimano XT 3×10 shifty bits and brakes, and Mavic C29ssmax wheels. Props to Orbea for spec’ing a 180mm front rotor.
Trial by fire
I started off the test with our own DirtFest weekend, followed closely by the Trans-Sylvania Epic stage race. Nothing like put- ting on hundreds of miles in the first two weeks. Although the S30 is not the lightest build, the spec was plenty race-worthy for my mid-pack aspirations. A few extra pounds disappeared from the equation given the bike’s amazing pedaling efficiency—I felt like I’d magically gained fitness on the first ride, and appreciated it more with each subsequent pedal stroke. Especially standing, all I had to do was let my weight fall on the pedals, no pulling required, and the bike sprang forward—awesome when I was tired.
I was apprehensive about using a carbon hardtail for the notoriously rock-infested trails of the TSE, but the Alma handled it all with grace. Its claimed vertical compliance wasn’t some kind of pseudo-suspension; the bike still felt like you’d expect a carbon hardtail to feel, yet it wasn’t as harsh as I feared, and it rode comfortably as the miles piled on.
The Alma has a playful nature to counter its disciplined efficiency. With its snappy head tube angle and fairly short chainstays and wheelbase, this is a quick-steering bike that feels smaller than it is. This, plus the settled-in feel of the bottom bracket placement encourages more shred-style moves than what’s normal for a racy bike. I did strike a pedal here and there on rocks, but not enough to make me wish for a higher BB.
I used, and appreciated, the entire range of the Shimano Dyna-Sys 10-speed drivetrain—although a 2×10 would make a lot of sense for such a climb-friendly bike (and indeed the Alma S10 uses it). My only complaint was that the 11-36t cassette’s wide range skipped over my preferred gear for rock gardens. The brakes worked beautifully and silently for the entire test.
On Orbea’s advice, I applied Shelter brand protective tape to the down tube and underside of the bottom bracket to prevent flying rocks from chipping the paint and possibly damaging the carbon underneath. I also added a LizardSkins chainstay wrap. But chips of paint came off beyond the wrap and from a couple other areas not covered in tape. Orbea says that the paint can be dislodged from the carbon’s smooth surface, but that it’s nothing to worry about, unless there is also evidence of damaged fibers. Orbea offers a lifetime warranty on the frame, and although the company doesn’t cover damage from pointy objects, it speaks to the company’s belief in their bikes’ structural integrity.
I also had an issue with the FSA BB30 bottom bracket. The seals on one bearing failed. The bearing become contaminated with mud and water and refused to turn. I was able to pry it open and clean it out while it was still on the bike. According to FSA, this would have been covered under warranty and remedied with a new bearing.
The Alma would be an excellent choice for the privateer racer who includes “just for fun” rides as part of their training. Sure, this midrange version still costs a good chunk of change, but this is one “plastic” bike that I would consider a worthy investment.
Sizes available: S (tested), M, L
Country of Origin: china
By Karen Brooks
When Dirt Rag editor Josh set up a group of singlespeeds for a future test, I drew the lucky straw for a custom bike by a notable framebuilder: Sam Whittington of Naked Bicycles. You may remember Sam from such displays of framebuilding prowess as NAHBS 2011, where he won the People’s Choice award for his almost unbelievably clean and simple titanium singlespeed.
It was a bit hard to tell much about the frame’s ride characteristics from that ride, and the subsequent Punk Bike itself, as it was pretty sloppy. I did, however, determine that Sam’s choice of 32×21 gear, one step lower than what I’d been using on the Moots, is not a bad idea for steep-and-sloppy trails.
By Karen Brooks
A small but pesky obstacle for women getting serious about mountain biking: it’s tough, if not darn near impossible, to make a full-suspension frame with complex linkages in smaller sizes. Granted, you don’t necessarily need complex linkages to enjoy dirt, but sometimes it really helps.
Trek’s new Lush lineup for women features 120mm of front and rear travel in sizes down to 14.5”, with truly low top tubes. These bikes actually looked smaller than they were—Ross, a Trek staffer (female) who helps outfit women for demos, says customers often assume they’re on a too-small size when they can stand over the frame comfortably. But no, they’re just right.
There are four models, one carbon (shown here) and three aluminum, available in mid-January of 2012. The Lush Carbon goes for $4,600 and is dressed with a mix of Shimano XT and SLX (mostly XT) brakes and drivetrain with a Bontrager cockpit. Both Fox suspension bits, a Float RP-3 shock and 32 Float FIT RL fork, feature their Dual Rate Control Valve internals. The rear shock has a shorter eye-to-eye length to stuff it in that small space, and it’s also tuned for lighter riders. The rear dropouts are Trek’s APB Convert using a 142x12mm Maxle Lite.
By Karen Brooks
Marla Streb is a legend. If you don’t know this, you’ve been riding recumbents, or not riding at all. Seriously, she was a dominant force in the downhill scene in the ‘00s (with a couple of Single Speed World Championship titles thrown in), and has a captivating personality. Now, Streb is focusing on family and managing her former race team.
How did you transition from racer to team management?
During the last nine (of 16 total) years of racing professionally, I started conspiring to one day become the GM or marketing manager of Team LUNA Chix. Clif Bar & Company is a notoriously loyal sponsor, and even supported me during both pregnancies as a pro. So if I proactively showed an interest and helped the team with PR and marketing while racing/pregnant, they might eventually hire me full-time after my career, which they did. For this “semi-retired pro,” it’s been a dream soft landing.
Do you miss racing? Plan to do any events just for fun?
Yes, I miss some aspects of racing, especially the community vibe and the feeling of total physical exhaustion that racing provides. I’ve raced one local XC event this year, and will certainly ramp back up now that the girls (two and five years old) are starting school.
The mountain bikers (and other athletes) on Team LUNA Chix have had incredible success in the last few years, earning the UCI’s #1 team ranking, with plenty of individual race wins. What’s the team’s secret?
It may not be a secret, but the LUNA Pros’ individual successes come from being a part of the most well-oiled, organized mountain bike program in the world. From the unwavering support of Clif Bar’s Gary and Kit Erickson, to enjoying the best sponsors, product, and staff available, the athletes can really focus on winning. Their salaries are also commensurate with that of the men, so that doesn’t hurt.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done on a bike?
I barely remember this, but I coasted down a sidewalk in Fruita, CO once at about 30mph with my calves on the handlebars (instead of my hands). The resulting crash was sudden, epic, and haunts me every time I look at my butt in the mirror. Personally, I was not scared (Red Bull + tequila), but others mentioned that it was the scariest thing they’ve ever seen. Scary perhaps, but I’ve done dumber. (And if this wasn’t the answer to the previous question…)
What led you to race the DH at Snowshoe, West Virginia in 2002 with no protection?
Again, I’m not the brightest firefly in the jar…so I probably thought that I could save a tenth of a second by dressing like a speed skater.
Not to sound cliché, but—how do you balance motherhood, work and fun?
The work part is impossible with young kids, so now I drag my “night person” body out of bed at 4 a.m. for work. When I was seriously training, I just dragged my kids behind me in the Chariot trailer and climbed 3,000ft. up somewhere. For fun? Luckily, I got a lot out of my system in the 42 years before I decided to have kids, especially the last 16 years of racing around the world, surrounded by fit, young men. So at this point, hanging with the kids is my way of having “fun.”
On that note—are you looking forward to raising your kids as total trail shredders?
If my two girls grow up to enjoy shredding trails with their mother, then my life will be complete. My maternal mission: to love, nurture, and take them to the emergency room.
I hear you are working on opening a bike cafe in Baltimore…
It’s a concept café—about a third dedicated to bike retail, mostly focused on the café, with fresh coffee, then there’ll be the fun liquor side of it. There are some combinations of café/coffee shop/bike shops, but not all three in one place. It’s called The Handle Bar Café. It will have indoor and outdoor bike parking (with locks available), a bikewash, a sink outside the bathroom for just washing up—anything that you can imagine as a cyclist that you’d like. We’ll also do clinics, women’s rides, kids’ rides, and we’ll have enough room to do a spin class to encourage exercise in the winter, not hibernation. It’ll be low key, fun, functional, comfortable, and community-oriented. It’s kind of my dream situation—I’m always looking for places like that that will accept my drenched body. We’ll even welcome recumbent riders. We hope to open around the first of September.
This interview originally appeared in Issue #157. Order a subscription now and you’ll get all our content delivered right to your door as soon as it’s published.
By Karen Brooks, photos by Justin Steiner
When I first spotted this bike at Interbike 2009, the Norco Vixa was one of two women’s-specific freeride bikes at the show, the other from fellow Pacific Northwesterners, Kona. What is it about that area that produces badass chicks? A subject for another time. Anyway, since Kona has discontinued theirs, Norco is currently the only company to offer a women’s freeride bike. Although I thought the concept was way cool, I didn’t think I was the right tester for it, not having the skills to pay the bills as far as freeriding goes. However, as it’s true that a poor craftsman blames his tools, it’s also true that good tools can elevate the work of the craftsman (or woman). Such has been the case with testing the Vixa—it has encouraged me to improve my skills and given me confidence to push the envelope.
Nuts and Bolts
At first glance, the Vixa looks like a women’s bike, with its teal-accented white paint (thankfully Norco left out the flowers), but there are plenty of details to make this distinction functional as well as aesthetic. The 6061 double-butted aluminum frame is strikingly swept to fit 160mm of travel into a compact package. Most of the geometry measurements are shorter than the measurements for Norco’s nearest equivalent, the all-mountain Range: My size medium tester has a 570mm top tube, 744mm standover, 429mm chainstays, and a 1137mm wheelbase. The tubeset is also lighter than what Norco uses for their unisex freeride offerings, a welcome accommodation. Head and seat tube angles are fairly standard for this sort of bike at 66º and 73º respectively. The frame also sports ISCG 05 chainguide mounts and cable guides for a dropper seatpost. Overall, it could be better described as a light-duty freeride or heavy-duty all-mountain bike, strong enough for a man but made for a woman.
Norco’s A.R.T. rear suspension is a licensed version of Specialized’s patented FSR configuration, with the position of the pivots tweaked to point the axle path rearward in the first part of the travel, and thus glean some extra square-bump absorption and pedaling efficiency, along with more active braking. The forged rocker link is welded into one solid piece to bolster lateral stiffness; this link also has scalloped finger recesses thoughtfully added to the underside edge to make carrying easier.
Both front and rear squishing is provided by RockShox. The rear is a large-volume Monarch R, tuned for lighter-weight riders, with an externally adjustable rebound for the beginning of the stroke. The fork is a standard Lyrik Solo Air R with external rebound adjustment, set in a tapered head tube.
Naturally, this bike gets thru-axles front and rear: RockShox’s Maxle Lite for the front, and the Syntace X-12 axle and derailleur hanger combo system for the rear. In the 142mm-wide X-12 system, a bolt pinches the drive side of the rear dropout and passes through to a burly derailleur hanger; this bolt is designed to break loose, rather than the hanger, and Norco provides a handy spare bolt threaded into the frame.
Other parts of note include a Shimano SLX drivetrain featuring their latest 10-speed cassette with an 11-36t range, and Shimano M-575 hydraulic discs with 180mm rotors. To continue the women’s theme, Norco spec’d their own brand of aluminum riser bar in a not-too-wide 700mm width (680mm on the XS and S size bikes), with small-diameter lock-on grips, and a WTB Deva Comp saddle.
Free to Ride
I was a little nervous when I received the Vixa. My previous experiences with long-travel bikes taught me they were burly beasts in need of a firm hand to keep them in line. Some felt like they demanded more speed than I was comfortable allowing. But right off the bat, the Vixa’s compact size was reassuring. The reasonable handlebar width alone went a long way toward making this a bike I could control easily. A shorter top tube is expected for a women’s bike, but the shorter chainstays and overall wheelbase made the bike seem friendlier. The Vixa was equally easy to steer in techy stuff, whip around smooth but short turns, or lean over aggressively at speed. I didn’t have to get all aggro to make the bike go where I wanted. The shorter wheelbase might possibly become a hindrance at DH-racing speeds, but for my current skill level, it was a big bonus.
A basic non-piggyback air shock on the rear might seem like chump change to some freeriders, but since most chicks weigh significantly less than dudes, it gives plenty of cush while saving some weight. I kept the rear shock at the low end of the recommended 25-30% sag. The front end kept pace just fine with the rear, and felt nicely balanced, although it took an air pressure setting almost too low to measure to achieve the recommended 25% sag. The suspension feel is on the squishy side; unlike some five-inch-plus bikes that don’t reveal all their cards right away, the Vixa’s long travel is immediately apparent.
Norco achieved close to bottomless-ness with this set-up, and their claim of square-edged bump slaying also seemed to hold up. Although the bike handled responsively, the cushiony suspension feel led me to aim less and fire more on technical descents, opening up new possibilities. It was certainly hella fun to find a rutted, rocky ghost of a fire road and just point down and let ‘er rip, not bothering to pick a line at all or even deliberately seeking out the biggest chunks, letting the shocks just soak it all in. Unweighting for drops meant scooping into the travel, rather than actually getting the wheels off the ground, with plenty of smooth travel for soft landings. I had to learn to go at kickers with some speed to actually get some air.
Perhaps incongruously, I was impressed with the way this bike went uphill. The dreaded bob was almost nonexistent, at least in the rear wheel and while seated. I ended up barely using the granny ring—the 36-tooth big rear cog helped in that respect. Sure, the Vixa’s heft didn’t lend itself to scampering up slopes, but that didn’t prevent me from trying. The bike’s climb-ability allowed me to ride up some of my favorite cross-country trails without excessive suffering, and enjoy them a lot more on the way down. The whole package felt plenty stiff laterally—no doubt aided by the thru-axles. Granted, I’m not one to push the boundaries of a bike’s lateral flex, but I certainly pushed more boundaries with the Vixa than with other bikes I’ve tested.
The one quibble I had was with reinstalling the rear wheel. Syntace claims that their X-12 thru-axle makes it very easy to drop the wheel in place and screw in the axle, but I found I had to lift one side slightly to get the axle to thread. Norco says this isn’t a sign of poor finish or anything to be concerned about, but it would have been nice not to fiddle with it as much.
Ultimately, the Vixa’s strength is in its versatility. If you’re a girl who enjoys focusing on the down more than the up on trail rides, and who wants to dabble in lift-assisted fun, you could skip the trail or all-mountain style bike for your next upgrade and go straight to the Vixa—you’ll enjoy the benefits of 160mm of travel, but not feel hampered on casual trail rides. Although I’ve been an XC weight-weenie type for some years, I have always kept an eye out for that epiphany bike, that one big-hit ride that would instantly make me see the light and want to join the dark side of speed and gravity. The Vixa comes closest to fulfilling that wish.
- Country of origin: Taiwan
- Price: $2,860
- Weight: 34.5lbs.
- Sizes available: XS, S, M (tested), L
- Contact: www.norco.com
- Age: 37
- Height: 5’8"
- Weight: 125lbs.
- Inseam: 33"
Freeride superstar Darcy Turenne spoke with us about her impact on the development of the Vixa. Read our interview here.
Tester Karen Brooks put the Vixa through its paces at the Massanutten YEE-HA! downhill race. You can read her race report here.
(Or, ‘Dicky Stole My Title’)
By Karen Brooks
Josh asked for a “look back” kind of post about the Trans-Sylvania Epic, and I’m glad he did – it’s fun and therapeutic to evaluate such an undertaking after a week’s worth of reflection.
It was strange, and grueling at times, that my “job” for the week consisted of riding fast and far, then recovering as best I could, day after day. But I found that I loved it. As someone who has avidly watched Le Tour for years, I got caught up in the drama, the intrigue, the tactical calculations necessary to do well. My goal was simply to finish, but it spiced things up considerably to find myself in a friendly duel for a placing somewhere in the 7th through 10th range. I had to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses compared to my closest competitors, Laura Gleason and Tanya Hanham – Laura was faster on the loose downhills and Tanya had better overall fitness, but I had an edge in the many rock gardens. There was also Kaarin Tae, who played “tourist” after she caught the dreaded stomach virus stalking the peloton, but who would probably have edged me out had she been able to continue. It was especially awesome to be able to mix it up with the pros on occasion, although generally I only saw their dust for a few seconds after each start.
Yet the simplicity of it all was refreshing – just fuel yourself up, ride your ass off, then attend to your bike and try to recover enough to do it again the next day.
The organization of this race was amazing. I can’t say enough about what a great job all around was done by Ray Adams, Mike Kuhn and their extensive army of volunteers. It certainly helped make this an epic adventure with very minimal consequences and a lot of rewards.
Some things I’ll always remember, in no particular order:
- The many butterflies crossing our paths, particularly on Stage 3 (the “road” stage, which sounded awful but was in fact beautiful)
- The otherworldly Tussey Ridge Trail, with views dropping off both sides and many dead trees (never did ask what they died from)
- Beating Rebecca Rusch on one of the Mini-XCs of Stage 5 (even if she did have asthma)
- The party after Stage 7 – I’ve never seen a group of people get so drunk so fast
- The pools of standing water and/or very muddy sections on nearly every stage – actually quite refreshing given the extreme heat the first few days
- My sudden and spectacular endo caused by a pedal strike on a hidden rock (which somehow didn’t result in injury)
In short: do this race if you can!
More from TSE: Read all our racers’ exclusive dispatches from the race.
By Karen Brooks
It’s the fourth day of the Trans-Sylvania Epic – humpday. Some of us have made it this far, but broken frames and broken dreams abound. A stomach virus has been creeping its way through the peloton, taking out contenders like Karen Potter, who was leading the women’s field until it got her. Our own Josh got it on Monday night and couldn’t start Tuesday. So far I seem to be lucky.
More from TSE: Read all our racers’ exclusive dispatches from the race.Tweet Print
By Karen Brooks
Josh, Dirt Rag editor, and I are now at the Seven Mountains Boy Scout Camp, nervously preparing for the start of the Trans-Sylvania Epic. We begin our adventure at three this afternoon with the opening prologue, a time trial of 10 miles. Josh’s wife Jamie is our directeur sportif.
More from TSE: Read all our racers’ exclusive dispatches from the race.Tweet Print
By Karen Brooks
This past weekend, a few of us Dirt Rag staffers traveled to Massanutten Resort in Virginia for the Massanutten YEE-HA! downhill race. This is a venerable race with a long history… in fact, the guy that makes it all happen, George Willetts, entertained us with tales from way back of lake jumps, rigid rigs with toeclips (and plenty of broken frames), and insane photos ending up in the Rag.
These tales reached back beyond the times when I first started getting into mountain biking, some fifteen years ago. At that point I struggled to deal with the smallest rocky sections and terrible canti brakes, and had no thoughts of doing anything so “extreme” as a downhill race, let alone a lake jump. But Missy Giove, the queen of the U.S. downhill scene, was my hero. She possessed all the fearlessness and style that I lacked and desperately wanted.
A few years ago I decided to do something about my lack of “cojones” and went on a quest of sorts, detailed in an article for issue #133, “Becoming Un-Wimpy: One Person’s Journey Toward Mountain Bike Bravery.” Since then, I’ve made some progress, and had a few setbacks, but still hadn’t tried an actual downhill race.
This year, I tested a freeride/all-mountain bike, the Norco Vixa, the biggest-travel bike I’ve ridden. (See a full review in Issue #155.) That called for stepping up my game and further expanding my comfort zone. So I rode a fairly insane rocky trail in West Virginia, some of the stunts I’d never tried at Ray’s MTB in Cleveland, and the new (and awesome) Dr. J trail in our own local North Park. But as Norco is kind enough to let me keep riding the Vixa into nicer weather, another opportunity to shred the gnar came up in the form of the YEE-HA!.
Justin and Frank convinced me that this was an easy course, and well within the capabilities of the Vixa. I believed them. We made the drive on Thursday to get in a full day’s practice for the Saturday race. One borrowed helmet, pair of goggles, suit of armor, and my custom Dirt Rag DH jersey later, and I was dressed for battle.
My first run down the mountain was not pretty. The course starts off with a dropoff going into a big rock garden, and I rolled off less than gracefully, then flubbed the very next obstacle, a “pyramid” of logs and rocks. After that, the course really wasn’t that bad – typical Eastern-style woods sprinkled with mineral chunks, just tilted at more of an angle than I was used to. Muscles I had forgotten about were already screaming after just one run.
I must admit that the lift-assist aspect of downhilling is mighty convenient. It’s easy to catch a ride back up and try again. So I did just that, repeatedly. I got some good advice on line choices from Justin and Frank. I also messed with the suspension settings and decided to try clipless pedals (after getting bounced off my flats a couple times). The Vixa proved plenty capable – if I screwed up, the bike was all like, “It’s cool, brah,” and if I didn’t, it was all, “right on, brah!” And lo and behold, on each run I got more comfortable and a little bit faster, and even had some fun. There were two curves at work, however: my mental game was improving, but my body was wearing out. I tried not to say “one more run” out loud – gotta avoid the jinx – but just let my legs decide when sitting in a camp chair was the best option.
Race day dawned clear and bright. I was nervous, but it helped to hear that Justin was, too. Frank opted not to race, lacking health insurance; I tried not to think of the implications of that. But here my previous dabbling in mental training helped a lot – I was able to use the long lift rides up during my practice runs to focus, remember the course, and mentally replay riding all the right lines and imagine clearing all the obstacles that had been giving me trouble. “Flow like water… flow like water… flow like water” was my mantra.
At registration the day before, it looked like I might have a guaranteed “win,” being the only chick in the sport class. But another woman had signed up, a local named Jennifer Wolfson, and I watched during practice as she easily cleaned the harder of the two lines through the opening rock garden – on a cross country bike. Dang. Well, it would be interesting at least to see how close I could come. Maybe Jennifer would get a flat.
All of us girls gathered at the top. We were grateful that we got to go first, and get it the heck over with. Jennifer engaged us in conversation, and we marveled at the fact that the local badass DH racer, Lauren Daney, was only seventeen. (My age = too old for this shit.) The pros went first, and I tried to mentally embrace their line choice and speed, but of course they all went insanely fast, and took the harder line.
Then it was my turn. I pumped down the ramp, made it off the dropoff OK, and crested the top of the pyramid with one foot down – still an improvement. It got better from there, as I took the best lines I could, and even caught significant air from one optional jump. Crossing a small stream, I didn’t account for how scooped out it had become, and hit the bottom hard enough to get ejected from both pedals. I had to duck-walk to the top of the other side to reset. But I the finishing rock garden went by smooth as… not quite silk, call it corduroy. It was definitely my best run and I was happy to have made it without needing to be airlifted off the mountain.
Later on the results were posted. Satisfaction with my well-executed plan of just trying out DH racing and not getting hurt evaporated when I saw that I had lost by two seconds. Two seconds! Damn, I shoulda pushed harder…
Well, it looks like I’ll have to try it again.
Special thanks to Massanutten photographer Ian McAlexander for supplying some great images. Check out his website www.itmexposures.com for more Yee-Ha! coverage.