The course was an 8.5 mile loop mapped out on the Steeple chase side of the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, GA - site of the '96 Olympic MTB race. I was only vaguely familiar with the area from a previous trip to the Southeast Bike Expo. So, like my previous SEC race, lap one would double as a recon lap.
The SEC races are well organized, so we rolled off en masse as scheduled at 10:00am. The start took us through an open field before entering the pit area and start/finish timing loop. This was followed by a bit of twisting around more open field, cyclocross-style into the single track. It was wide enough for passing and I got a good start.
The trail was in great shape. I used the same set-up as I had at the last SEC race and it proved to be a good choice. The AKA's multiple small knobs dig into the surface through the pine needles but still roll well and took the roots in stride.
There were 2 fast downhills that ended their descent with a rocky stream crossing, followed by a climb. The temptation was to blast down the hill to keep momentum up for the climb, but the rocky creek crossing looked like a good place to flat, so after the first time of bouncing off the rim, I backed the pace off a bit.
There were 3 climbs to mix-up the twisty and open sections. One was steep and narrow and twisted around some small trees. It wasn't too technical, and could be taken in the big ring but it was a potential place to be held up by slower climbers. The next climb was on a horse trail. It was similarly short and steep, although more open. With some cooperation, there were passing opportunities. The surface was soft and bumpy from horse travel which made wheel placement critical.
The biggest climb was pretty much straight uphill. It was wide enough for passing with only a few technical sections. There was plenty of grip, but because of the steepness it was necessary to remain seated and keep the front of the bike weight-ed. I took it in the big ring the first couple of laps (at a very low cadence) but when my chain dropped to the smaller ring at the beginning of the climb on lap 3 - it worked out so well that I made that my standard procedure.
Overall, the course was quite fast. My lap times were about 40 minutes. Which is good for fueling, because it's never too long until the next opportunity to stop. It does mean more lapped traffic, however. I start to notice a pattern. Each time I go through the pit area and start another lap it's not long before someone, presumably racing a duo, passes me and gets away. For a while. By the time we get near the end of the lap where the toughest climbs are I've managed to catch them and pass them back. I figure my pace must be pretty good if I'm rivaling the teams as a solo rider. However, as a solo rider I have no-one to tell me what place I'm in.
Normally, I plan to pit every 2nd lap, but with the shorter laps I decide to pit after lap 3 and 6. Which was a good plan, but fatigue has it's effect on math....
The SEC series only counts laps that are completed within the 6-hour time limit. There is no cut-off time to start the last lap. So, my inability to do math well (i.e. count to 8) results in a less then optimal strategy. By lap 4, I've convinced myself that I will only be doing 7 laps. My strategy is to focus on doing a smooth, flowing lap on lap 5, then focus on doing a "power lap" on lap 6 - making an effort to pedal at every opportunity - as soon as possible on corner exit and staying on top of the gears on descents. Then, for my "final" lap, on lap 7, I would just use whatever I had left to get to the finish, fueled by adrenaline and the caffeinated gel I have been saving in my jersey pocket for that final lap.
It was all going as planned until I realized that I would finish lap 7 at about the 5:00 mark. Plenty of time for yet another final lap. So I had another opportunity to play the mind games that are so important to finishing strong in endurance events. I guess I was really fatigued because my brain fell for the usual tricks I had just gone through by telling it: "OK, this is the last time across the stream", "Just two more climbs", "This is the last time through this section", etc...
In the end, it all worked out well. I was a little apprehensive about checking the results, but after some recovering and cleaning up a bit, the suspense overwhelmed and I checked the most recently posted results. A very satisfying way to end the day - at the top of the podium after a hard days' work.
See you on the trails!