MTB Nats

For the first time since Katie Harris’ dominant performance in 2008, MIT Cycling sent three riders to Angel Fire, New Mexico for the 2012 Collegiate Mountain Bike Nationals. Although MIT hasn’t been as dominant on the dirt as it has been on the roads for the past few years, these three riders sought to put MIT back on the national mountain bike map.

Since the beginning of the 2012 season, sending a team to Nationals was one my personal goals as captain. It was really awesome to feel excitement for the race building throughout the season, and especially watch my teammates share in this excitement in preparing. Laura Ralston, long a force-to-be-reckoned-with on the road, competed in her first-ever collegiate mountain bike race season and was competitive enough to secure podium spots and easily secure a spot at Nationals. Luke Plummer, dedicated from the beginning, struggled through persistent mechanicals to upgrade to the A category, but after a first-place short track finish managed to qualify by the skin of his teeth at the last race of the season. With a final team cemented, Luke, Laura and I packed our bags and headed out West.

After arriving in Denver and watching the plains gradually rise into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on our six-hour drive south we finally arrived in Angel Fire, NM. With not much but a ski area and a few small restaurants, the whole town of Angel Fire buzzed with anticipation as the horde of mountain bikers descended. After hurriedly building our bikes in the parking lot and checking into our room, we headed out to the course to get our pre-ride in. The course, with a start elevation of 8,500’, began immediately with a lung-popping 1000’ climb up the ski resort. Talk about a warm-up. It being a pre-ride, we took it really easy, but knew just how exquisitely painful it would be the following morning. After a technical singletrack section through a volcanic rock garden, the climb finally turned downward for the gloriously buff, bermed and curvy descent. As I floated down that flowy singletrack that first day and even lap after lap during the XC race, I found it impossible to wipe that perma-grin off my face.

Ok, maybe not impossible. On the starting gun the following morning, I could feel the thin, dusty, and dry mountain air searing my lungs as I fought to stay with the pack on the steep doubletrack that started the course. Narrowly avoiding a crash on the dusty off-camber first corner, I stuck with the bunch and made a few passes until it began to string out and settle down. On the second lap, Luke joined me, and we continued to catch a few riders off the back. As the DI leaders zipped by, we figured we’d also soon be lapped by the DII leaders. Considering how tough that climb was, this wouldn’t have been the most terrible thing – it would have meant only three, not four laps. As we crossed the line of our third lap, the race director urged us on – we hadn’t been lapped! Proud of this accomplishment, yet somewhat apprehending of the riding the climb once more we pushed on – only to hear the DII leader cross the line 100 meters behind us. We enjoyed our final lap (especially the descent), even considering crossing the finish at the same time Lemond-Hinault style. Laura put in a great performance in the DII women’s race. Building on her road experience, she powered up the climb time after time to put in a 7th place finish.

The following day’s short track proved no less trying. Each lap included eighty feet of climbing, which doesn’t sound like too much but proved extraordinarily painful every time. That, in combination with a fast but dusty descent and an off-camber gravelly turn made for an interesting but short race. Luke improved on his performance, placing 39th, as did Laura, who made 5th!

After such a great racing experience, we couldn’t resist the urge to go for a fun victory ride. Turns out we were but miles from the best mountain bike trail in New Mexico – the South Boundary Trail – which connects Angel Fire to Taos, NM. Generally, it’s done as a one-way, mostly downhill ride, but we didn’t have quite enough time to arrange for a shuttle. Instead, we drove our rented minivan 7 miles up a rough dirt road to intersect the trail at the Heaven on Earth section. After some confused navigation and interesting interactions with the locals, we finally found the trail and got riding. The Heaven on Earth absolutely lived up to its name: gradual, smooth downhill through groves of quaking aspen led us up a gentle climb to the top of Osha Peak with beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountains around every corner. After a snack and a nature-appreciation break, we barreled back down Osha Peak, the flowing turns through the aspen like a dream. Eventually, the sun setting, we arrived back at the car just in time to drive back to Denver for our flight the following morning.

Thanks to everybody at MIT Cycling for the opportunity to race at Nats! I’m excited for an even better performance next year.

See y’all out on the dirt soon!
-Ben Eck