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.