Fresh off his recent success at the Hardcore 24 mountain bike race, Alex Alexiades grad opened up the collegiate mountain bike season with a bang, dominating the Men’s B XC field this past Saturday at Lehigh, winning by over three minutes over second place and over eight minutes on third place in his first collegiate race for the Big Red.
UPDATE: Alex has upgraded to Cat A and written a great race report with some photos (below).
I headed down to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA last Friday to pre-ride the XC course for my first ever collegiate race. I’m something of a late starter for mountain bike racing considering I’m 32 years old and just started cycling in earnest last year when I moved to Ithaca (to do a PhD at Cornell) from out West, transitioning over from alpine/big wall climbing and big mountain skiing. My only race experience was in the NY and H2H XC Mtb Series this summer. I also did my first 24 hour solo this year in the NY Hardcore 24. As a fairly new mtb racer, I didn’t know which category would be best to sign up for, so I split the difference and signed up for Cat B. I had no idea how I would fare in the race.
When we arrived at the course on Friday for the pre-ride it was a balmy 90 degrees with high humidity. It took us about 2 hours to find the start of the race course since the organizers incorrectly marked the start location on the map! Good thing we actually found it, since pre-riding the course turned out to be essential. I had expected collegiate race courses to be a little bit more mellow than USAC event courses-boy was I wrong! This was undoubtedly the most difficult-physically and mentally-course I’ve ridden in the East! The course lures you into a false sense of security by starting on a doubletrack with only a few large boulders scattered intermittently; however, it abruptly cuts onto a single track with nearly continuous boulders, baby-head rocks, huge log overs, creek crossings, and obstacles for about 2 miles. After that section, you are rewarded with a brief respite on fast flowing single track for about .75 mile. After that-the real punishment begins! The last ~1.5 miles of the course consist of uber-steep uphill switchbacks with nearly constant gnarly rock gardens! I could barely ride it clean on the preride while taking breathers after the most difficult sections. Coupled with the heat and humidity-it was nearly torture! I knew it would be a hard race on Saturday!
We arrived at the course early Saturday morning to find a huge line at registration and only one port-a-potty for several hundred people-yum! After getting registered I only had a few minutes to “kit up” and begin warming up. I was surprised by the size of some of the teams there-for example UVM probably had 30 riders, a huge bike trailer, rollers, support staff, etc.! I was also impressed by the bike skills of many of the riders-they were popping wheelies, doing trackstands, etc…. I was the lone Big Red representative and began to wonder if I should have signed up for Cat C!
I tried not to let their numbers intimidate me too much though-after all-mtb is mostly an individual effort. The race began at 10:15 for Cat A, with Cat B starting about 5min back. There were approximately 15 Cat A racers and 30 Cat B racers. I hadn’t really raced against such a large field since USAC events are divided up by age groups. I was nervous about the mass start since there was bottle neck at the start of the double track as you transition off of the grassy start area. My fears were realized after the starting gun fired as I couldn’t sprint ahead of the pack before the bottleneck. I took a direct line onto the fire road, but another racer cut directly in front me and I nearly endo-ed when trying to avoid t-boning him. On the initial downhill section, I was unable to pass many people since everyone was going fast, but as soon as we hit our first uphill, the pace was slow enough to allow me to keep my heartrate quite low-so I knew I had to get ahead of the pack if I wanted to race at full speed. This was no easy task since it was completely single-track, but fortunately most riders were pretty good about letting me pass when possible. I passed 6 or so riders within the first few miles and finally could race my own race. I assumed I was way behind the “lead pack” since I had had such a bad start-so I just settled into a groove-going as fast as I could without redlining. I hit the gnarly uphill section on the first lap and tried to keep my heartrate down. I was cursing the 2X10 gearing I had on my new bike-wishing for a granny gear!!!After the first 10 switchbacks or so, I was forced to dismount and began running for the last couple of switchbacks. At this point I began passing Cat A riders who started 5 min ahead. They too were pushing their bikes, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.
The second lap was uneventful. I thought that a win was out of reach since I never saw those phantom riders “ahead of me.” There was also no one in sight behind me. It would have almost been enjoyable were it not for the sheer physicality of the course. Still, I kept pushing it just to see how well I could do. I passed 3 more Cat A riders during the lap. The big climb felt even longer and harder this time around, but I finally crested the hill and onto the grassy start finish area. I wanted to finish strong so I put the hammer down for the last few hundred meters, even though no one was around. As I came through the finish I asked my wife how I did, to which she replied- “You Won!!!”
I was stoked to have won my first collegiate race. The 2nd place rider came in about 3 min later, followed by the third place rider about 8 min back. I almost felt like a sandbagger-but I really had no idea that I would be able to finish so strong. Since there were no medals or even a podium ceremony-the win was rather anti-climactic. We just packed up our stuff and headed to the final race of the NY MTB Series-where my wife won Cat 1 for her age group in both that race and the series overall. It was a very successful weekend of mountain-biking for a couple of beginners!
Watch for us to continue to outshred our competition next week at NU’s Wild Western Weekend!