Idyllwild Spring Challenge MTB

Race Report: Idyllwild Spring Challenge MTB  5/5/12

La Grange racers:
Pete Brandenburg – 1st Cat 1 40-49
Matias Mendigochea – 13th Cat 1 40-49

Doug Sparr – 9th Open 50+

I’d been wanting to do this race, or at least ride here, for years since hearing of miles of twisting flowy singletrack in a beautiful setting in the San Jacinto Mountains. Finally got around to it this spring and had one of my all-around best days ever on a bike. The Idyllwild Spring Challenge has been around for years and seems like it’s everyone’s favorite race. It draws a lot of riders out of the woodwork and the fields are pretty big despite it’s not being part of the main regional series and being in the middle of nowhere. Idyllwild itself is about an hour east of the 215 freeway at 5000 feet on the west slope of the San Jacinto Mountains. Perfect mountain terrain with pine forests, wildflower meadows and big rocky peaks above. Weather was 75 degrees, blue skies and a light breeze.

Matias and I were signed up for the Cat 1 race on the long course – 27 miles and 4000 feet of climbing in one big twisty loop in the May Valley and South Ridge of Tahquitz Peak. I’d ridden much of the course a few weeks ago and knew that it is mostly great singletrack, technical at times, with a few uphill fire road sections and one brutal road climb in the middle. One of the many cool things about the race is that lower categories can do a shorter course or take on the long course in an “open” class. The trails are so fun that this is a popular option and Doug was in.

I did my usual too-long warmup, panicked stumble through the crowd at staging looking for my group and line up in the back row. There were about 15 in our age group, a few I knew are fast but, interestingly, none of the three who beat me in my last MTB race. I figured the start would be fast, like a cyclocross race, since the course funneled down to singletrack less than 200 meters from the start. It actually wasn’t that bad at all – Matias got the holeshot and I scooted up to 4th wheel behind a Helen’s guy and a Celo Pacific guy.

Matias set a healthy pace uphill on the first section and four of us got a bit of a gap on the rest, then Helen’s guy went around and got a gap of his own and then Celo guy went ahead as well. With 2+ hours left I was not going to burn a match chasing. Matias kindly let me by for the first descent and we started mixing in with riders from other fields as the trail widened to a fire road for the next climb. I worked to pick off as much of this traffic as possible before the next long section of singletrack where I knew it would be difficult to pass. That section was a blast and I tried to just be efficient through the technical parts even if I wasn’t passing too many people. Weird to be recovering on a climb but that’s what it felt like.

Back onto fireroad, still climbing, and it was time to make some time. Quickly caught and passed Celo guy and another in our race and was in 2nd. Hmmm. Near the top Helen’s guy appeared and I caught him just as the climb topped out. Got ready to duke it out to be first onto the next downhill singletrack section but he slowed and waved me through. Questionable tactic but I’ll take it.

We then hit the bottom of the heinous climb. It felt steeper than the 13% and longer than the 1 mile that Strava says it is. This was compounded by my nemesis hovering 50 meters behind the whole way up. I had caught him on a climb and he had dropped me on a descent so I figured I had to drop him here or at least hurt him bad if I wanted to win. At the top I was still ahead but couldn’t really see how far due to all the sweat in my eyes and lactic acid everywhere else. Perfect time to drop into a long fast technical singletrack descent.

The top was sketchy but I gradually regained my composure and got into a good flow around the tight corners and over the rock features. The next hour was all twisty up and down singletrack and, while the scenery was different, the trails were a lot like what I used to ride in New England. I was getting through the technical stuff efficiently  and looking to add speed in places where it wouldn’t cost much energy. I couldn’t see or hear 2nd place anymore so that was good too. But then he’d re-appear, damn. Then he was gone, cool. Then he was back. As the singletrack sections went on and on I started to catch more riders from other races and worked to get by them ASAP and hoped they would slow down the guy chasing me. Pretty much everyone was wearing a black kit that looked like Helen’s.

Finally the twisty stuff ended and I time trialed it down a fireroad and across a flat meadow. Didn’t know where Helen’s guy was but knew he was close. Up the final short climb I caught 7 other dudes from other categories who were in full race mode, not eager to pull over and let me by. It was especially hard to pass because the trail was essentially a narrow rut that you could not get out of to go around. I did manage to get to the front of this group by the top, looked back and saw a few others, including some black jerseys, about to latch on.

Now there was about 2 miles of fast rocky descent to the finish line. Try to hold my position in front and Do Not Crash. Too technical to look behind but I can hear a large group right on my ass. One guy got around but he’s not in my category, OK. Break out onto the campground road and 10 of us sprint to the line, I take it for the win! Quick look back and Helen’s guy is not there but, holy crap, Dave Turner from my category, who I hadn’t seen all day, had finished strong and snuck into the sprint group. He took 2nd, less than 2 seconds behind me in an almost 3 hour race. It was a good thing I didn’t know Helen’s guy was not in the group or I might have let up enough for Dave to pass before I knew what was going on!

This was my second Cat 1 mtb race and for sure my biggest bike racing success. I have won before but never closed the deal in a tight finale like that. The excitement and nerves of the last few miles almost obscured all the pain in the legs. Just incredibly stoked to win what was an “A” race on the calendar for me.

I expected to see Matias and Doug shortly after but where were they? Turns out Matias took a wrong turn two miles from the finish and was rewarded with a nice long bonus climb. He got straightened out and still managed to beat a few guys. Doug had to stop and fix a flat tire late in the race which was frustrating as he was riding well. Despite this they were both happy as the course is just so fun to ride. Plus Doug won a bunch of swag in the post-race raffle (Matias – you didn’t win the raffle, sorry.)

Thanks for reading!

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