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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bad Karma - WVMBA Black Bear Race Report

Barring something catastrophic, like a point leader DNF in the Championship I'm out of the running for the 1st place spot for Sport Vets in the WVMA race series . Still lots to feel good about, I've captured four wins and at one time or another beaten all the vet riders in the top running spots. In one race I beat the entire sport field by five minutes. I've come a long way since I got back into riding and my September 2007 DFL finish in the Month of Mud.

It was a four hour drive to the fabled Black Bear race outside of Charleston, WV. Self proclaimed 'Scariest Mountain Bike Race in the World' and not without merit, Kanawah State forest holds some fearsome and scary fast terrain. I registered and grabbed a race t-shirt. The shirt was sweet. A black bear behind a swanky red star... on a tricycle. I couldn't figure out if the red star and soviet style military font were part of the bear theme or for the intermittent gun fire roaring throughout the race from the parks public firing range or maybe some misunderstood allusion to the Borat movie. It felt good to be at the race. After three weeks of being sick with strep and only being on the bike three times, once to train and twice to race, I was finally starting to feel like I was getting my mojo back.

There was much brooding over tire choice for this race. On the bike was a pair of wide knobby Brontrager ACXs and on the other set wheels was a new pair of Kenda Karma 1.9s featuring their fast rolling, low profile tread. The trails were dry but much of the course was rough with fast rocky technical downhills. I stared intently into the back of my subaru at the two sets of wheels like somehow the secret answer was hidden in the back of my car. Really the distance became the outweighing factor. I remembered dragging around those big fat tires in the last race clogged with mud and didn't wanted to be doing that again for 19 miles. Against the advice of DP I decide to run the Karmas. I ran them with a little lower air pressure (30 lbs.) to smooth out the ride.

The race started out great. We followed a pace vehicle down through park roads. The pickup stopped and directed us to the right onto more black top and the race began. The front group formed and we all drafted up a slight grade pushing a little under 20MPH. We made a hard right and started a very long fire road climb. Four of us pulled away from the pack. I felt like we were in a mini Tour de France as the leaders pulled away from what was the former mountain bike peleton. We kept pushing and the main group was far far behind. They were nowhere to be seen or heard and with them the vet point leader Dave Brown.

Feeling relaxed about my position I eased off a little to allow some recovery from the fast paced start and I let two of the sport riders, who were not in my class, take some ground. I was feeling so pleased about the start; no David Brown and it was looking like I was going to capture the win and give myself a good shot at taking the series. Later I found out Dave didn't have a big ring and couldn't stay with the pace vehicle on the black top. The entire time he was determinedly stalking us and slowly making up the ground. It wasn't long before he was tailing behind me and made a pass.

We went back and forth; at times I was ahead, others he lead. I followed him down Black Bears fastest all out rocky descent. I could have gone faster... probably a lot faster, but I was honestly glad to have him in front of me. On unfamiliar terrain he kept my speed to a sane level. I have a tendency to pull out all the stops in situations like this and take big chances. Prior to this, while I lead, I overshot a sharp switch back and lost my bike down over the hillside, ooops... having Dave in front was probably not a bad idea.

Eventually I wore down and he started to pull ahead on another long fire road climb. I counted, 16 second ahead of me. I wasn't too worried I was hoping on a strong finish. I do well in the longer races, the ones that go past a ridiculously short 12 miles.

Up until this point I was super pleased with decision to run the Karmas. With the reduced air pressure and low profile tread, the karma's ran super smooth on all the fire road climbs. A couple times in the loose stuff they lost a little traction but it was no big deal. In the tight windy single track the Karma's held their edge. Bulleting down through the rough stuff, they handled very well.

On the climb another rider had made his way in front of me and was between me and Dave on the downhill. After tailing and going slower than I wanted and no opportunities to pass on the tight trail, I tried to encourage the pace. 'Hey let's pick it up and catch Brown.' Graciously at the next sharp turn he took it wide and beckoned me through. As I came around hard from the outside I misjudged and clipped his back tire with my front. I went ass over tin cup and came down on my forearm and head, then in one motion I somersaulted onto my camel back landing with a comforting squish. Thank god for the extra padding back there. He stopped to make sure I was ok. Apparently it was quite a scene because he asked twice. Bruised, scraped and bleeding again I answered 'I'm fine. i'm fine'... Sort of like that Pepsi commercial.. hand raised 'I'm good'.

He started off ahead of me and I continued to chase. In a seemingly innocuous section of trail before we even reached the bottom, I heard the unsettling and disappointing hiss of air quickly leaving my rear wheel. I didn't even have to look at the tire to realize no amount of stan's was resealing it. Inspecting the tire I found a large gash on the tread and the only thing I could do was put in a tube. For me the race and my quest for the lead spot in the series was over. The Kenda Karma's had let me down.

I pulled out a tube and used three dollar bills to cover the large hole and prevent the tube from pushing out, pumped up the wheel and I rolled on. The chance of catching the leader was slim but I was entertaining the thought of maybe taking second (not realistic). I caught a few riders and pushed past them, it wasn't more than 20 minutes later when I ran into the edge of a large flat rock, sort of like a curb, and pow! This time the front tire went. Two new Karma's vs one tough race course, another casualty of the Black Bear. I've heard of serious racers who ride nothing but the Karma's but apparently they ride a little lighter than I do. These tires just don't seem suited to the terrain the typical WV series race dishes out.

Another racer Tyler gave me a tube so I could continue, even if I finished last I was at least going to get in a good ride.

I was surprised at how tired I felt. Even with two long breaks to fix flats, I still felt wore down. Maybe I'm still not 100%. It should be no surprise, the steepness and the climbing in this race is unmatched in the series. At one point the climb was so long and so steep I just put my bike on my back and marched. These steeps accents were matched with steep, steep white knuckle downhills and rocky uber fast descents. There is no other race in the series quite like the Black Bear.

Next stop WVMA Championship Race outside of Morgantown at the Henry Clay. If all goes well I'll secure my 2nd place spot in the series.

More Black Bear mountain bike drama:


  1. Dang, and I just ordered a Karma 1.9 for the rear. I can't run a 2.2 or bigger and was looking for something different than the Small Block 8.

    Congrats on the great season!

  2. A karma at the Black Bear. That was a brave move. I have those tires on my crosscheck, and I hardly trust them there.
    Hells I was wishing for more tire up front and I run a Rampage.

    But kudos on your season and good luck at the next race


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