MTB Races and Dark Places: Stewart Poison Ivy Mousetrap MTB Race
I am not a mountain biker; keep this in mind as you read on. In fairness, I have ridden mountain bikes before, and I do race a bit of cyclocross, so I do not consider myself a complete novice to off road cycling pursuits. But this mild bit of misplaced confidence led to a tale of woe and suffering from which I am only just recovering. Thus, this post serves as both a bike review of sorts and a cautionary tale.
In the weeks leading up to the A.C. Daughtry Security H2H Stewart MTB race, our team was contacted by Sean Runnette of MTBNJ with a generous offer of loaner bikes from Edwin Bull of Van Dessel Cycles for members of TBD who were off-road curious. Sean even went out of his way to make sure that some of us were able to have access to the bikes several weeks ahead of the race to test out and get dialed in for the main event. Three of us ended up borrowing bikes for the race: Matt was set to tackle the Stewart course on a single-speed Country Road Bob, Steve would be ripping it up on a Jersey Devil, and I would be trying not to embarrass myself on a Gnarzan.
A brief description of each from the Van Dessel website:
Sporting clearance for 700c, 650b or 29″ tires, up to five water bottles, fix gear, free wheel 1x or throw on that drive train that's sitting on your work bench. You have options. Set it up as a really sweet single-speed, or any other drive train you might be fond of. Race it, or just show off how light you can make it, or both. The Country Road Bob is eager to please.
This is a Race-Ready hardtail machine designed for modern cross country, trail cross over. The head angle adjustability, dropper-post compatibility, and boost spacing for a dual wheel-size platform (27.5+ up to 3″ or 29″ up to 2.4″) means the Jersey Devil can set up for aggressive trail riding one day and all -out endurance events the next. The lightweight carbon frame has an all-rounder geometry, agile handling properties and makes climbs feel a little less steep. The end result is a bike designed so you can get your kick on your fave trails, or so you can kick butts at your fave races.
The Gnarzan is not your dad’s mountain bike. It’s a thoroughly modern hardtail made for getting radical. Nimble enough for everyday riding and aggressive enough for a day at the bike park. With slack geometry and 27.5+/29er tire clearance you can tune your ride to dish out the right level of speed vs. gnar depending on how you feel like riding that day: 29er x 2.3″ for slicing through the single track, or 27.5×3.0″ for velcro grip and seeking out the steep grades & big drops. The frame features a sturdy 6061 frame, Boost 148×12 technology, ISCG-05 mounts, dropper post routing, and an old-school english threaded bottom bracket (as well as no pivot points, bushings, or bearings) to keep the just-get-on-and-shred-gnar ride level real.
Despite my complete lack of MTB race experience and the skepticism of the team, I opted to throw myself into the 4-hour endurance race at Stewart. Logically, I thought that I’ve done plenty of rides over 4 hours before on the road and I’d have ample opportunities out there to learn the course. Rookie mistakes all around. On the first lap, I found myself overusing my road-fitness to try to stay close to the leaders and compensate for all of my technical mistakes. Imagine the crushing heartbreak of looking down and realizing you are only 2 miles into an 8-mile loop. On the second lap, I started driving the bike better in the woods but was noticeably more tired than I expected for that stage of the race.
On the third lap, things fell apart. I tried to combine some speed with my improved knowledge of the course and was not successful thanks to a combination of mental fatigue and overconfidence. I managed to go over-the-bars on one of the drop-offs that I had cleared easily on the previous two laps. As I was somersaulting through the air, I couldn’t help but think about how I could’ve been done by that point if I had raced my category. The rest of that lap saw me in a very dark place, clipping trees left and right, slipping tires in turns, and almost coming to a complete stop before every drop on the course. After a brief stop in the feed-zone to gather my thoughts, I rolled out for one last lap, unwilling to end on such a low note. By this point, my hands were fully cramping and body hurting from the crash and effort. I could not have done another lap if I wanted to (though reflecting later, I wished that I had dared).
In the end, I had roughly 3 hours and 25 minutes to think about a lot of things in the woods on a Saturday in June. Firstly, the Van Dessel Gnarzan was certainly the right horse for the course in my opinion. After tweaking the fit over some loops of Highbridge Park (a small MTB trail right in my backyard in Upper Manhattan), the bike was a comfortable and easy to handle steed for this roadie. Plus the wide-ranging SRAM Eagle 1x groupset on it provided ample gearing to handle all the steep pitches and flat roads the Stewart course had on offer. Additionally, I felt the durability of an aluminum frame was an excellent match to my own skill level without a crazy weight-penalty.
Doubtless, a more skilled rider like our own Ted would have eked much more speed out of the platform. I’d like to again thank Sean, MTBNJ, and Van Dessel Cycles for making the race possible for myself and others on TBD. Secondly, the MTB scene is a vastly different animal from that found at your typical road race. Despite the many categories on course at the same time, people were generally polite when needing to make a pass or being passed. Plus, there was a burger and hotdog waiting at the finish for all those who participated. Finally, as humbling as that experience was, I find myself more off-road curious than before. Maybe, I’ll opt to race my category next time or maybe I’ll seek some 4-hour redemption, but I can see myself zip-tying on a number and hitting the trails again soon. I am not a mountain biker, but that may change.