MISSOULA, MONT. (VN) — Stop No. 6 on the Pro XCT circuit took us to Missoula, Montana, last month. The race in Missoula is one of my favorite U.S. national races. The course is fun. The crowd is energetic. And every trip I’ve made there to date has had some excellent Missoula-esque memories to take home — from a team-bonding clay pigeon shooting outing, to beer-drenched season finale parties (which are awesome for silky hair but horrible for dance floors).
But for two years now, I’ve also left with a feeling of discontent. Sent packing with my tail between my legs by an A-line option called the “Straight Shot.”
Big air in Big Sky
A signature feature of the Missoula course is a five-foot-plus drop that rests just below the top of the course. In 2011, when I first year saw it, I could only look at it to take stock of the situation. Scientific measurement showed the take-off stood taller than I did with a gap that reached longer than my bike. That was all I needed to know to shut down Operation: Big Sky. I went home and vowed to return the next year better prepared.
In 2012, I showed up with some drops practice under the belt and piss and vinegar in the veins. I was going to run the A-line! The day before the race, I rolled up near the drop, put my bike down and walked to the end of the drop for inspection.
I then proceeded to fixate on how far down terra firma rested below and imagined the various consequences of a botched attempt at radness. This counter-productive exercise also included a scenario that would rip up the shorts so my bare ass would be stuck in the air, front-and-center, as course marshals untangled me from the course fencing and spectator cameras recorded the carnage for YouTube.
And that was that. It was B-line for me. Despite a good race, I left Montana a disgruntled cyclist, taunted a second time by a course feature that thwarted my quest for airtime.
Cue the training montage music
Short of a neck tattoo reading “Missoula Or Bust 2013,” I fully committed myself to riding the A-line this year. I put a Kronolog post on my bike and hit the local bike park with race club technical coach Lee McCormack. We figured the medium and large slopestyle drops were pretty close to the gap I had to clear and the landing I had to get comfortable with to ride the line in Missoula, so my focus largely rested there.
I practiced my technique and then did non-stop laps on those lines. While kids a quarter my age (little to no exaggeration) rested above the x-large line before hitting a massive whale tail feature, I rode the large line over and over again to make sure I didn’t get twitchy with fatigue. It got to the point where they’d see me climbing back up and just give me the nod with their bobblehead-esque full face helmets and permit me to cut in line and hit the run again.
Thanks, little rider dudes.
Third time’s the charm?
On Friday before the race, I made my way back up to the top of the course. I rode the approach three times to get it down and decided to hit it on the fourth. I came down the hill, rounded the sloping left hand turn, banked up the hill for the right-hander and pointed my wheel toward the take off.
I then promptly put on the brakes to “check it out” one more time. In other words, I chickened out. It was looking like 2012 all over again.
I headed back up for another try.
I started to roll. Down the hill, around the corner, bank right turn and then my mind started to chatter again. “Check it out one more time.” I actually surprised myself when the inner response turned into a retort, “Nooo. You’re not stopping.” I had a full-scale internal argument going.
And then I was in the air.
The adrenaline hit me just as I landed. Of its own volition, my left hand grabbed the front brake. Twice. But I was back far enough each time to ride it out while my mind reigned it all back in. I pulled over to the side of the trail a ways after the landing. My hands were shaking. I had just ridden the A-line.
I rode one more lap in practice, this time without stopping, to dial in the drop for the next day’s race. I went without a hitch and I realized how confident I was in my setup.
For dropping over five feet, my hardtail Scott Scale 700 felt incredibly smooth. The fork was loaded perfectly for maximum travel. The 27.5-inch wheels and carbon layup cushioned any jarring, the rear thru axle kept the rear wheel stable. (I’m loving my biggie/small wheels.) I probably didn’t need to race with my Kronolog, but since my whole set up weighed in at 20.11 pounds, I kept it on for increased confidence and … well, to just up the fun factor.
It’s a jumper
When we finally got to the drop in the race the next day, I’m surprised how quickly it all happened, given how much I had built it up in my head. The spectators didn’t know who was going to do the A-line until they saw riders take the banking turn toward the drop (versus the straight-away to the B-line). It was at the bank turn that I’d hear a woman yell, “It’s a jumper!” which, if I wasn’t mildly hypoxic from the last climb, would have been a lot funnier, given it sounded like the medic’s “We’ve got a bleeder!” line from “There’s Something About Mary.”
And now, after three years, that is done! It was good to finally put this one to rest and finally get the monkey off my back. And given the A-line was about 10 seconds faster than the B-line, riding it for all five laps helped me secure a fifth-place finish. And to boot, it builds a lot of confidence for other things I’d like to ride.
Like this one drop in South Africa that dogged me last year. I want to revisit that in 2013 …