I love riding at this place, the long steady climbs seem to really play to my strengths. My week leading up to the race was insane, I had my training plan laid out and followed it blindly, only half-aware that this was a race prep week, and when Saturday came around it clicked mentally - time to get into the racing mindset. Usually I start visualizing races 3-4 days out, but not this week. Lack of mental preparation didn't seem to be an issue, when we rode to registration, the hill leading up to it didn't even register - my legs felt great.
Got in a solid half hour warm up, lined up behind the pros in a field of about 8 or 9 single-speeders, find out we're starting with the pros, and off we go at a blistering pace. We lost the pro's wheels about half way up the fire-road climb, and I settled in at third place, behind Brian Kelley and Chris LeDonne. Brian stretched out his lead over the first few minutes, and Chris put some daylight between him and me as well. All good, we've got a long ways to go. By the time we got to the first fire-road climb, I could see Chris and Brian a little ways ahead, with Chris passing Brian. Sweet. That gave me a little motivation to dig a little deeper for the rest of the climb, which was followed by an awesomely fun twisty fast stretch. At the bottom of the second long climb, I could see Brian a little ways ahead of me, and about half way up, I reeled him in and passed him. Sweet, thoughts of a 1-2 bulldog podium crossed my mind, followed by "don't go there man, it's way too early." Further up the climb, Steve Mancuso and Dylon VanWart came around me from the group behind, I dug a little deeper, and managed to stay with them to the top and all the way down the twisty single-track descent (in the old days of riding a rigid fork, that would have never happened).
Sitting in second place, wrapping up the first lap, all is good, then as I make the sharp turn by the finish line, something doesn't feel right - I look down, and sure enough the rear is going soft. &^%(&^%(. I knew I had hit a sharp rock pretty hard in the last few hundred yards of single track before the fire road, wasn't sure if I just burped the tire, or what; there were no Stan's bubbles coming out of the tire. I probably could have gotten away with just airing up, but decided to play it safe and throw in a tube. Three minutes later I'm back rolling, with my entire field having passed me. I was livid, and started riding like a man possessed. Its definitely been a while since I've passed that many people in a race, caught up to Morgan (who had an awesome first Cat 1 race) on the long flowy downhill between the two fire-road climbs, and stayed on his wheel as we ripped through that section at Mach 1 - turns out Morgan thought I was a guy in his field, so he turned up the gas when he heard me behind him. On the fire-road climb I could see what looked like a couple of single-speeders up ahead, so I dug deep and reeled them in. Further up the climb I passed a guy in a Giant kit - not sure if that was Jeff Lenowsky, but ended up riding with him on my wheel for half a lap, which made for great motivation to keep pushing.
By Lap 3 it became apparent that my focus on passing and pushing hard came at a price - I neglected my hydration. Popped some blocks, made myself drink, but took a couple of spills from being woozy until the sugar made it's way into my system. Passed a couple more single speeders, some minor cramps made themselves known, told 'em to go away, and they complied. Towards the end of lap three, I saw Jeremy Swift a switchback ahead of me - I was pretty sure he was sitting in third place, so I dug one last time to try to get him, but it didn't happen - he was almost at the top of the fire road climb leading up to the finish as I came out of the woods at the bottom. Ended up finishing in 4th place, 20 seconds out of third, 50 seconds behind Chris in second. Definitely a great day on the bike and no regrets about my performance, still working on getting those "would have, should have, could have" voices out of my head, but I'm almost there.