I've mentioned before that I suck at ball sports, but I did run cross country and track all four years in high school. Of the two, cross country was a lot more fun. Each race began with a mass start, then the racers would funnel into a dirt trail through New England forest. I wasn't very good, but I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Both the boy's team and the girl's team had some very fast runners. A few of my team mates were top runners in the state. All I had to do was cross the finish line, and they would qualify for the podium.
This arrangement led me to develop a whole new racing tactic...The Decoy. An underclassman named Joey MacRitchie and I would toe the line with all the best runners other schools had to offer. Everyone would put on their game face. A starter gun would go off and the group would lunge forward. That's when Joey and I would jump into action. We would explode into the 3.1 mile course at a pace that was barely sustainable for half a mile. It couldn't be a dead sprint, it had to be somewhat believable if we were going to lure racers from other teams to follow us.
Usually before the first mile was up we would be completely burned out. We would ease off to the side of the course doubled over with our lungs burning. With any luck there might be four or five good runners from other schools now looking at us confused. Perhaps they thought they were following the race pace of some exceptional runners. Instead they were just trying to keep up with two idiots out to disrupt the race. Joey and I would settle into a slow jog as the entire pack passed us by. Twenty minutes later we would cross the finish line laughing and screwing around with the other stragglers at the bottom of the field.
Three years after my running career ended I was settled in Leadville, Colorado when my good friend Ronnie convinced me to try my first mountain bike race. I slipped my sneakers into the toeclips of my Trek 820 and waited for the start of the race. The riders charged forward and I stupidly tried the same thing I had done at every crosscountry race. I took off in the lead pack, burning energy like a drag race car. Somewhere around the first mile I was completely wasted and other riders started slipping past me in an endless stream. In the middle of the pack Ronnie rode past me and asked, "What the heck were you thinking?"
The problem is, in competition, I really don't think. I get completely overwhelmed by the experience and I lose track of any plan or strategy that might actually lead to success. My next attempt at racing was a downhill race at Mt. Hood, Oregon. Ok, I thought, this is my kind of race. No worries about pacing myself. Just get out there and leave it all on the course. The entire run will be less than five minutes. My friend Logan and his brother had been downhill racing for a couple of seasons. I met them at the hill and Logan gave me helpful bits of advice like, "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast."
I took a couple practice runs, then waited a few hours with all the other racers. Finally my number was called and I balanced at the starting gate. The timer beeped and I took off pedaling like a crazy person. The fun thing about my one downhill race is that Logan's Dad was video taping each of us as we went into the most technical feature of the race. It was a series of log steps. Slow racers would drop off the first step, then onto the second and continue down the course. But the really good racers could drop off the top step, gap the second one, then touch down on the course and accelerate into a corner. After each of us made it to the finish line, Mr Godsiff rewound the video tape and we watched the footage.
Logan's brother came over the log stunt, he crouched into a racer's stance and cleared the second log by inches. As soon as his wheels touched down he cranked the pedals and flew down the course. Next, Logan came into view, he cleared the feature with precision and sailed down the course even faster than his brother. Lastly I came along. I'm looking good as I set up for the drop. Then, instead of popping cleanly over the log, I reach the edge and launch into the air, flying higher and farther than any other racer. The other racers wanted to get as little air as possible, so they could land in control and stay fast. I did the opposite, my trajectory carried me far down the course and I slid into a corner completely out of control. From there I crashed, got back up, fixed my chain and continued down the course, behind the time of the slowest racers.
That experience taught me that I'm just not suited for a typical race format. I can't be confined to competition against a clock. I needed something that would show off my creativity and my unique style. That's when I heard about a Freeride Contest!
My friend Patrick ( The Wheelie Master) and I loaded into a van with our buddy Adrian and drove a few hours to Salem, Oregon. Inside a County Fairground building we examined the craziest competition course we had ever seen. It started with a diabolical series of elevated skinnies and seesaws that quickly became higher and skinnier.
|Imagine this type of thing, but higher and skinnier, magnified in my memory of 15 years ago
In 2003 the bike culture believed that skinnies were an integral part of stunt bike riding. After the nightmare of 2x4's the course lead up a platform and the dropped down into a nice dirt jump that was perfectly suitable for big tricks. Pat and Adrian started scoping out the various lines that could be taken through the wooden maze. While I was drawn like a moth to the light of the dirt jump. I was a dirt jumper, I thought this would be a dirt jump contest. I sucked at skinnies and had no plans on conquering them that day. They held a rider's meeting and explained that scores would be based on your skills through the entire course. Then they opened the course to practice runs. I made a few feeble attempts at the wooden structures, then just pushed my bike past them and started hitting the jump. I figured I would half-ass my way through the wood, and then salvage my run on the jump.
In the Wheelie post I mentioned how well-rounded Patrick is in every aspect of bike riding. On this day, I got to see his incredible balance in action. He made his run early on and set the bar for the course. He entered the series of wooden contraptions and chose all the hardest lines. He balanced six feet off the ground and rode over seesaws, around 90 degree corners, be probably threw in a wheelie at some point. By the end of the course I'm sure he was ten feet off the ground riding across a long 2x4. Finally he climbed the platform and dropped in for a nice clean no-footer over the jump.
Rider after rider went, there were probably one hundred contestants. Adrian cleaned the course almost as good as Patrick. Then finally in the 70's I got to go. I started up a wood ramp. First it was two feet wide, then it was one foot wide. First I was four feet off the ground, then six. I came to the first challenging part and lost my balance. I stepped off, my foot slipped, I grabbed a support and jumped off my bike. My bike fell from the structure upside down and clattered on the concrete. While the announcer jabbered over the loud speakers I pushed my bike past the rest of the course and up the platform. The crowd was watching as I rolled in to the jump.
In the heat of the moment, I hadn't noticed the damage my bike had taken in the fall. It had landed on the seat, and now one side of my seat was folded down. My best move was the Suicide No-Hander and I hadn't seen anyone do one yet. Unfortunately, the bike seat plays a key part in the implement of the trick. I carried a ton of speed and popped into the air. My body automatically went into the motions of the trick. My hands let go and came around straight behind my back, my knees squeezed in against the seat to lock it in place...and I didn't get a good pinch on the broken seat.
At the peak of the jump the bike pitched forward and away from me. I ejected off the back did a tuck and roll landing onto the dirt pile. The crowd of spectators gave me a pretty good cheer and I finished my first freeride contest with a mix of excitement and disappointment.
A year or two later, G.I Joes, a sporting goods store in my town of Bend, Oregon hosted my next freeride contest. This was going to be the one. I was prepared to truly shine on my home turf. Friends that I rode with were involved with designing the course. All my buddies were riding in it. And I had added many new tricks to my repertoire. The course was built in the parking lot and dropped in from an elevated platform into a big wooden kicker. The landing was a big pile of dirt that had been hauled in by trucks. After the landing was a big tall wall-ride structure.
|A side view of the wallride
The plan was to session the kicker all day and then have a contest under the lights that evening. Banners and a sound system were set up. A pro rider named Eric Porter was sent out to our little town to judge the event. G.I Joe's sold Iron Horse bikes, and that was his sponsor. I surprised him one of his cover shots that he happily signed.
My friends and I spent the morning helping unload equipment and setting up for the event. We strung up barriers and set out chairs, then we shaped the landing and pushed the wooden kicker into the ideal position. Once all that was done we were ready to try it out. When I'm getting used to an unfamiliar jump, I pay close attention to the speed I carry going into it. If I find the formula that works I try to duplicate it each time and it becomes automatic, then, once the actually jumping part is taken care of you can begin working on tricks.
|Brian Buchanan flying high
So, a couple other guys had already hit it when I dropped in, I matched my speed to theirs and cleared the jump just fine. I landed high up on the dirt pile and smoothly rolled out onto the pavement. I came back around and got in line behind a dozen other riders. The excitement was building up. The jump seemed like a really good design and all the riders were ready for a fun time.
|The plywood kicker to a dirt landing
I took my place for a second jump and rolled in just as fast as the first time. Down the roll-in, across the pavement and up the wooden ramp. I could tell something was wrong as I hit the apex of the jump. From the air I watched as most of the landing dirt pile passed by a few feet below me. I tried to adjust my trusty P1 into a position that could handle the impact, but it was too much. I landed with only my back tire on the dirt and my front on the hard pavement. Maybe I lost my grip on the bars, I'm not sure. But I remember my right forearm slapping down on the blacktop.
I was the first crash of the day, and others ran over and helped me up. A rapid inspection of the scene was performed and the cause of the crash was quickly determined. It turns out that one sandbag sitting on the supports of a large wooden ramp isn't enough weight to keep it from sliding on pavement. Each time a rider hit the ramp they were shoving it an inch or two closer to the landing. The second time I hit the jump I was hitting a much shorter gap. I tried to tape my arm, but the bruising set in fast. I had to concede the day and watch from the sidelines.
It was still a fun time, and I was happy to cheer for my friends. I have fond memories of every contest I've entered even though each one ended in total defeat. You might think I could blame a bent seat and an unstable ramp for my lack of success, but I know that's not true. The first time I let myself get completely flustered by the technical challenge. I could have ridden the skinny to the best of my ability and gracefully stepped off. Instead I kept going until I had to jump to safety.
As for the sliding kicker, that's only partially to blame. I know that I was probably carrying too much speed into it. My friend Rob once mentioned a condition called "overstoked" that's when your skill level is a lesser sum than your excitement level. I was certainly "overstoked." To be a successful competitor... well, I don't know what it takes because I don't have it. Maybe I'll interview some friends who do.
That's it for bike competitions. But I did once have 45 seconds of glory at a ski racing event. There wasn't 10 seconds of glory in the four years I raced gates in high school. But years afterward I entered a skiercross event at Mt. Bachelor. It was expensive, and it was a half a day of waiting around. But I finally found myself lined up with three other racers. The beeper beeped and we launched out of the start gate. By some crazy luck I got the holeshot. I never looked back the entire race, I just punched over every jump and obstacle in the fastest, straightest line I could conjure. I ran like a scared rabbit before a pack of hounds as I tucked into the final straight. There was one last jump before the finish line and I sailed into it. I pulled my knees in tight and tried to form an aerodynamic ball. I had to pump my arms a little bit to stabilize. A move called "rolling up the windows." And when I did, I felt something bump my ski pole. It was another racer passing me in the air. He touched down ahead of me and blazed to the number one finish. There was no physical way I could have gone any faster, and he went faster than me.
Later I realized most of the skiercross racers were using tuned race skis, and I just had my normal, everywhere skis. So I can either use that as an excuse or admit that I simply lacked the fortitude. I'm fine either way, but I know I didn't try another race after that.