Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Dragon's Back Recon

During this transition time before the serious lifting, I'm trying to burn some vacation time and expand my horizons a little bit. I think my technical capabilities have stagnated some from riding the same trails. Going to new places forces you to adapt and react to new stuff. So I'm trying to take this time to get out to some places I haven't been to for a while.

Chris and I got out to Dragon's Back today. This trail is also coming back to Virginia Racing after a hiatus. This was one of the first races I ever did when I moved to Virginia. I've seen Gunnar Shogren, Sue Haywood, Jeremiah Bishop and Floyd Landis race here. It's also kicked my butt every time. I can recall cramping so bad on the ridge a few years ago. And this seemingly benign fire road section back to the finish induced lock up leg cramps only a few miles from the finish.

The course is a figure 8. Up the grouse trail, turn right take the ridge to the Deer trail, down, then a little loop at the bottom called ring of fire, back up the Grouse again, then left across the ridge and down the Turkey trail.

It was cold. I mean my teeth were shivering and I felt stiff as a board. Tough to decide what to wear because the climbs will heat up but then the downhills and ridge would be cold.

A short warmup on the fire road, which was in suprisingly good condition got us to the bottom of the Grouse. The first part of this climb is TOUGH. Lots of small rocks and steep enough that it can just drain the life out of you. Thankfully it doesn't last too long and it leads you into the meat of the single track climb. This is classic sidehill trail. There is a washed out section early on that Chris cleaned. I didn't feel like stacking it so early in the ride so opted to walk.

You soon come to the first of several switchbacks. The left handers are possibly rideable by someone good. Again I opted to walk while CP trialsed himself in the right direction to ride them. There are some right handers that are ok if you can keep the front end down.

In the middle of the climb there is a hike-a-bike really steep shale section with some big trees down. It was very hard to walk up this shale section. The rest of the climb isn't too bad. Some off camber sections and a few slightly rocky sectionst that are best powered through. The last pitch to the crest is really steep.

Up on the ridge the wind was blowing but we were a little shielded by the trees. The leaves were down to. Going right on the ridge yields several rock gardens, and some really steep climbs. The leaves were like 4" deep so it was row-row-row your bike and move an inch at a time. The rock gardens and off camber sections are really fun for the most part.

I'd been thinking about the hardtail vs the FS for this course. With so much climbing and a fair amount of fire road sections maybe the hardtail was a better choice. The bottom part of the climb favors an FS but the rest of it favors a hardtail for the most part. But the ridge....FS for sure. It's rideable on a hardtail which I've done several times, but it was super duper fun and seemed faster with the FS.

It's not like a magic carpet ride though. You've still got to be a contortionist and be super nimble and all over your bike to finesse through the rocks. But you can really power through the rocks rather than pick your way through.

We rode right by the Deer trail. The leaves just hide everything. Thankfully Chris realized we passed it and we turned around to backtrack. There is this pile of rocks by the trail but we whizzed right by it.

The top part of the downhill is sketchy, but then it gets better. Basic straight rocket runs with a sidehill drop into a switchback..repeat. The shrubs on the side of the hill were overgrown into the trail and they were catching my bars. The left hand switchbacks were good but the right handers were super steep/loose and really sharp and I walked them all.

Again my deficiency on this type of downhills became apparent. I've got some mental block that keeps me from loosening up and getting my head up and letting go of the brakes. So it just creates this negative feedback loop of dropping my vision, grabbing the brakes and tensing up. The funny thing is it is just this type of trail that gets me. And it's not the really off camber stuff either. It's the really fast-smooth stuff. I actually much prefer rougher rockier stuff vs these sidehill rocket runs.

There are some off camber sections that aren't too bad. Once you get off the side hill and into the hollows it's pretty fun. This drops you back onto the road. Be careful when you drop off the trail because there is a wheel sucking dip between the road/trail.

We opted to skip the ring of fire due to our previous detour up top and headed back to the Grouse. The fire road is deceivingly hard. You think you should be going faster but there is some pretty good elevation gain to the trailhead. 2nd time up. Again the first part of the climb just sucks your energy.

Back on top we headed left. It is only 3 miles to the next trail. But let me tell you this is the longest 3 miles in existence. It's a combination of power rock gardens, and short steep climbs.

The rock gardens are some of the funnest I've ever ridden. They require lots of balance/finesse/and power. Several times I found myself in the wrong gear. I'd been in an easy gear to get up the steep grunts, but then needed a bigger gear to power through the rocks. A low gear just didn't work in the rocks.

There are a few spots with some serious drops that can be ridden, though I opted to walk. On and on the rollers go. The back of the dragon, right. Finally there is this really steep downhill covered in 4" of leaves that made the rear wheel just slide.

Like any good backcountry ride I didn't bring enough food and was bonking. You'd think I'd figure this stuff out, but the cold really takes it out of me. I downed the last of my PBJ and we headed down. Similar to the other downhill but not as overgrown. A few times I was able to let it go and get my head up to see Chris way off in the distance. But then I'd just fall into the bad habits. In the middle of the mountain you get off the sidehill and onto this sort of mini rollercoasters. It is a blast.

There is a section of serious off camber with a few rock steps. The steps take nerve which I forgot to pack. The camber takes balance and lean which did make the trip.

The bottom part of the trail goes into a creekbed for a little bit. The leaves were hiding all the tire eaters so trust and momentum were your friends.

This dumps out onto a jeep trail that leads to the main fire road. The fire road back to the start/finish area again is deceptively difficult. There are two climbs that can jus take you over the edge if your not careful. And be careful on the downhill corners.

We were out for 3.5hrs including the detour which probably cost us 20minutes. Now here's the mind boggling part. We didn't mess around too much. Stopping do just put on or shed jackets, and eat a little. Not a whole lot of chit chatting, and we were moving at a decent pace. Not all out but not a stroll either. The top experts do the course in under 2hrs. I've done it in 2:40 and my goal is 2:20.

Some notes to think about if you're going to race it:

-mounts/dismounts. I need to practice these for the switchbacks and some logs. I know I lose time on getting off and on slow.

-hike-a-bike. You will be walking your bike and carrying it over some sections.

-Log hoping. gotta practice this, cause there are plenty of logs.

-Save the legs. The climb can suck your life away. But you HAVE to have strong legs on the ridge. you can make a lot of time on people just spinning away if you can blast through sections.

-The rollers along the ridge are very hard. Similar to Douthat they just suck your life away.

-Go tubeless or high pressure. The rocks plentiful. If you aren't running tubeless than run high pressure or thick tires otherwise you'll pinch flat. With the rock gardens you're also riding in crevases between the rocks which are hell on sidewalls too. I'm a little worried about my sidewalls which is a weakness of Stan'd tires.

I'm going to use the memories of this trail to keep me going through the winter training. April 7th is coming up quick. And the Dragon gives no sympathy.


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