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Freetown 50: A roadies off-road experience

With the 2017 road season now behind me and surgery on my thumb scheduled for tomorrow, I thought it would be great to get out of my comfort zone and jump into a mountain bike race while I still had use of my hands (with a protective cast around it of course). Only knowing that my friend Mike O'Connell of Rock Hard Racing, was putting on the race I jumped onto and signed up for the longest option in the elite field. Turns out that 50 miles on a mountain bike in what Thom Parson's of said was "the hardest, most technical 50 miler in New England.." was a proper way to get introduced to MTB racing and MUCH different than 50 or even 150 miles on the road. But, the way I saw it, the more miles I was able to do the better, since I will soon be relegated to Watopia Island in the world of ZWIFT.

Pre-Race: Arriving at 8am I quickly grabbed a bike from my friend Bobby who was kind enough to let me use his full suspension mountain bike. Thankfully this option was available because if I had to do it on my other buddies hardtail, I would have been in serious trouble. With Bobby being roughly the same size as me I simply threw my Shimano pedals on the bike and called it good. No other adjustments or test riding needed. I was good to go! At 9am we all lined up for the start and I put myself right on the front row so I could grab the little bit of glory I'd have all day. With the worlds longest holeshot of about 1 mile on a fire road before the trail head began, it was tailor made for a roadie.

Lap 1 (1:25:32 clock time):

As we started out down the fire road heading to the first trail head, I made true on my promise to get out in front for all of 45 seconds. Once the arrow pointing towards the woods became visible I quickly slotted myself around 6-8th in the pack. I wanted to make sure I got off the front so I didn't create a traffic jam by falling all over the place the second we hit proper technical areas. Thankfully with much more skilled people in front of me I was able to follow their lines and more or less keep up. The first technical area was short and dropped out onto a fire road where I promptly went as hard as I could and sat myself again about 5th in line. It was at this point that the technical areas started to get longer and eventually 2-3 people went by me as I made a misstep and put my shoulder into a tree…and guess what, the tree won. After that things began to click for me. This because I was able to sit myself behind skilled mountain bikers and simply follow their lines. Boy what a difference that made. I was able to keep up and then as always drop the big hammer on the fire roads and less technical straightaways. Over that first lap whenever I had open territory to work with I was putting my heart rate right into the 180's. For reference, my max HR I've seen on a bike came this year at the Salem Crit at 193bpm…so being in the 180's for extended periods of time meant I was really firing on all cylinders once I hit those fire roads. Maybe it was simply because I was just so excited to have a breather from all the technical trails. So as the first lapped rolled along I was able to get into a good groove and felt as if I was getting better at handling the bike each section. Coming through the end of that lap I was hauling and felt like a million bucks and had only lost about four minutes to the lead group of five. I was soon to learn just how relentless mountain biking can be.

Lap 2 (1:31:45 clock time)

Rolling through the start line to being the second lap I was cruising and felt great. I passed one rider as we entered the woods and slotted in right behind another. Turned out the guy in front of me was a stud on the technical stuff and like the lap before I simply did whatever he did and tried my best to keep up. It worked really well for most of the first half of the lap and I was even able to pass him and put in a good chunk of time on the fire roads. My specialty and also the only thing I was worth a damn at. Being able to put out high 170's for a HR during those sections I was rolling. Then it happened. I became a solo man against the elements of a really nasty mountain bike course. Without having anyone to lead me through the sectors, I felt like I took the worst possible lines ever and hit just about every rock and root there was out there. I literally could feel myself going backwards and at one point did a superman over the front handlebars. When I picked myself up after that one I just thought of what Bobby had told me before the race. Don't get frustrated. I admit it was pretty easy to do so, but out on those trails the more frustrated and faster you try to correct things the worse it gets. "Smooth is fast and fast is smooth" I tried my best to do that, but man on the back half of that lap I could feel the energy being sucked out of me. My wrists and forearms were really getting worked over and my back started to really hurt. Again, I can't have imagined doing this on a hardtail. So over the last 1/4 of the lap the bearded mountain bike wizard that had led me through much of the beginning of the lap promptly caught back up and dropped me like a bad habit. I had hopes of catching him on the fire road and letting him drag me through the woods again, however he was gone for good. It was somewhere near the end of this lap where I felt I was hitting that zombie mode where everything hurts and you're just rolling through, mouth wide open, praying for the bottles of Gatorade and Red Bull that were waiting for me at the beginning of the third lap. You can easily see on my ride file that somewhere during the back half of this lap my HR began to drop as I was struggling with the technical areas. This ended up slowing me down a bunch and even on the final two miles of fire road before the third lap began I was only able to get the HR into the low 160's at best.

Lap 3 (1:41:30 clock time):

Coming through the finish of the second lap I pounded Gatorade and chugged a can of Red Bull. Hoping that the combo of carbohydrates, electrolytes and caffeine would induce some superhuman powers. No super powers were attained, but I did feel mildly better about 15 minutes later. For most of the entire third lap I was alone. Again putting my body through hell as I hit ever rock in sight. I obtained an education in just how difficult real mountain bike racing can be. The suffering that you have to endure is tremendous. I've done 150+ mile rides with over 15k of elevation gain and have come nowhere near the physical exhaustion I felt from this. It was a strange feeling because my legs still felt great, I had lots of power on the flats and climbs. However, when the technical stuff came I was just going backwards. The harder I worked the slower I went. I kept as positive an attitude as I could and counted down the miles. Trying to find the smoothest lines and relieve as much pain on the back and wrists as I could. I slowly made my way around the course and thankfully/mercifully another rider passed me with a few miles to go. Honestly, this was the best thing that happened to me. It gave me the motivation to at least try to stick with him. However, he to dropped me on the trails....yet I could still see his helmet bobbing in the distance. Then it was gone. Bummer. I pedaled on, knowing that I was almost to the last part of the lap which turned into about a 2 mile power stretch on fire roads. My territory! As I made the left hand turn out of the woods there was a feeling in me that hoped the rider ahead was out of sight. This would have made it so much easier to just take it easy and ride it on in. However, making the turn I saw the rider a few hundred yards ahead. Making the most of the race I knew I had to at least give it a shot to get the legs firing. Finally coming to life I drew me up and past him and I was able to find the glory in being able to let it rip after 4 hours and 30 minutes of getting my butt whooped on.  All for 7th place out of 8 in the elite field. Woof! I guess I need to get myself a mountain bike and start practicing. (Don't tell my wife)

That feeling you have when you look at the Race Director after a 4.5 hour butt kicking.

Total Time: 4:38:48

Full Results - 2017 Freetown 50 MTB Race

Strava File - Matt Curbeau Ride Details

This one pretty much sums it up quite nicely.

*all photos credited to ABWooley

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