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2011/05/16

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It’s funny to think that I had to travel to Columbia to get caught up on rest and start feeling a bit more normal, if wheezing at 8000ft can be called normal… Hey, it’s all a matter of perception. And the perception of the US National Team couldn’t have been anything but positive after a few days at Hacienda Guanata in Chia, Columbia. Chia is a a suburb on the outskirts of Bogota, population 7,000,000.

I spent the few days between the Fontana Pro XCT and my departure from Columbia having a rest week at home and getting my new XTC Composite 29 dialed in. I’m pretty stoked to be spending some proper time of the big wheels (in particular, the new Stan’s ZTR Race GOLD rim laced to XTR hubs). It will be good to figure out if it is indeed 1% (1 minute in a 1:40 World Cup XC) faster in certain conditions in addition to being able to have an intelligent conversation with my fellow bike riders who seem to ask only one question these days. “What do you think of 29ers?” After my first couple rides on a bike set up for me (not Carl’s prototypes) I’m definitely stoked on the way it just feels fast, even if good ole’ Timmy Evens did point out that he’s still waaaay faster shredding down Sand Canyon on his new Northstar/Giant Team edition Reign… Thanks, jerk.

The trip to Columbia is actually pretty easy in the grand scheme of things, you could probably even drive there if you really wanted to. Which Carl kind of does someday, on a motorcycle, on the way to Patagonia… We landed in Bogota at about 9pm on Thursday and made it through the baggage claim/shuttle loading process about as smoothly as a group of twenty with a bunch of bikes in tow can. Unfortunately (and obviously), it was dark for our drive through the city to Chia so it was hard to get a sense of place. Lights were visible way up in the air though, which generally means big hills. We drove down smaller and smaller back roads outside Chia until turning into our Hacienda, kind of in the middle of nowhere, it seemed. Even my normally sufficient sense of direction was outside normal operating parameters…

Friday dawned a beautiful day, which, thanks to the shutters, we didn’t even know was in progress until about 10… Niiiice. A breakfast of fresh fruit and fried eggs was waiting for (roommate) Sam Scultz and I on the veranda when we emerged from our sleeping cave. Warm sunshine, dry ground and beautiful mountains surrounding the valley. Pretty nice. And mellow. Just what I needed.

The inevitable bike-building project was smooth, it was great to have former Giant Team mechanic Tom Neb on staff to field silly questions and lend crescent wrenches. Tom’s been in Durango getting his new shop, San Juan Cycles, up and running. www.sanjuancycles.comHe’s become a Giant dealer and is focusing on high-end work in between the obligatory shred sessions, which I’m quite sure have gotten even more awesome now that the boy’s got time to ride! (The shop opens at noon)

We were kind of wondering what the “safety” situation would be for us Gringos riding around Columbia after the tales of the last Pan Am Champs in Medellin, 2003. Fortunately, Columbia has been growing up the last few years, getting a bit of control over the Cartels and overall calming down a bit. We still had a police escort on a motorbike to accompany us on our fifteen-minute ride over to the race venue. It quickly became apparent that things were fairly mellow in Chia and we got a bit of local beta on a nice ride up into the hills to stretch out before getting on the racecourse. New Rabobank /GiantTeammate Katie Compton and I set off to check out the scenery and catch up. Beautiful countryside to say the least, small farms interspersed between lavish homes with kids from both playing in the streets while their parents lounged at the cafes that seemed to be every 500m or so along the winding road. There was also some serious bike riding going on, it seemed to be a preferred mode of transportation, even though we were 5k up a legit climb… Which made getting down to town riding on your friend or neighbor’s handlebars a bit sketch.

Side bonus of our hillclimbing was that we could drop directly onto the top of the racecourse, just as the Masters finished, to check out the fun part before we did the hard part. In true Latin American Style, about 200 meters into the fun part was a surprise hard part. They like the climbs steep around here! And, it turns out, they like the trails proper. This little zone was clearly a place that folks came to ride mountain bikes, the trails all contoured up and down the hillside and were built with the touch of someone who cares. It was good to see. Even the climbing, while steep and hard at times, was technical and thought-provoking for the most part. I was getting in the groove of riding the new 29er by the second lap, but couldn’t help but wish I had given the Columbian MTB community a little more credit and brought my Anthem X, it was rough and tech out there!

Saturday passed with a similar amount of sleep and even more lounging around eating the delicious meals prepared by the Hacienda staff. It was really great. Steak for lunch? Finally! Hats off to USA Cycling MTB director Marc Gullickson for setting this little trip up. We also sat down as a group in the evening and discussed the upcoming 2012 London Olympics. It was really nice to chat with Gully and the probable contenders so that we were all on the same page with rankings, selection, scheduling before the Games and overall ideology.

Sam and I championed another ten hours of sleep before Sunday dawned sunny and perfect yet again. No sign of the rain showers that were predicted, and that we were kind of hoping for. Sort of. We dined on more exotic fruit, my favorite being “The Eagle” and moseyed over to the racecourse at around noon. Very nice. The place was PACKED! I know Columbians love their cycling, but it was an impressive turnout. The whole hillside was jammed with people cheering for the U23 race, which happened to be won by a Columbian, just like EVERY XC event and almost all of the DH events. (American Jackie Harmony won the Women’s DH to break the streak) I’d met the Columbian Giant distributor with Katie on Saturday and he spoke of Chia’s ambitions to host a World Cup in the future. With this kind of enthusiasm and venue quality, they might just pull it off!

The North Americans dominated the front row for the start, but we all knew that some locals would soon catch up and be threats for the win. I started solidly, in the top 10 and keeping the leaders in sight on the first climb, while having a battle with one of the hard charging locals who I should’ve just given more credit and let go ahead. Which would have saved me from going that key 1% too hard at this altitude… I paid the price and he continued on. Todd Wells was able to keep local hero Leonardo Paez in sight until lap four of six when he simply disappeared up the climb. Wells and Bishop were gifted a position on the last lap when the Columbian in 2nd broke something with 2k to go. Bishop got around a lapped rider smoother (without crashing) to take second from Todd.

While all this excitement was going on I was slowly fading back into the teens, knowing that, regardless of my record sleeping the last few days and overall sunny disposition, I needed to stay within my limits. Then Bernard handed me a Coca-Cola (the good South American stuff with real sugar) with two to go and I started perking up a bit. Cracking on the last lap isn’t a big deal so I gave ‘er and passed 5 or so guys to come in 11th. Not great, not terrible. Stoked to have actually finished a race strong for the first time in a few weeks. Ok, so far this year.

So, how’d that new 29er work? Good and bad. On this course, for me, after having raced six laps, the Anthem X full suspension 26 would have been better. The track got rougher as the race wore on, which was compounded by fatigue, naturally. Climbing was awesome, the composite structure’s stiffness means every watt goes directly to the ground. And since XC races are won on the climbs, this ultimately was an asset. However, the climb was broken up with lots of little descents and bumpy traverses. These are the places that time was there for the taking if you could shift up a few gears and accelerate, which would’ve been better on the duallie. I had a great time descending on the 29er, it’s super light and flickable, enabling me to hit some of the jump lines available and shred around in general. But it’s still a hardtail, which, regardless of wheel size (and low pressure enabled by the NoTubes rims) will never roll as fast or smoothly over chunky terrain as a bike with 4” of travel. So, I’m pretty sure I would’ve gotten 11th either way, I just would have been more comfortable on the Anthem, since I’ve kind of forgotten how to ride hardtails. It’s coming back though! I wouldn’t trade the XTC 29 for my Anthem X just yet, but it’ll definitely get used a bit this year and I’ll continue to learn it’s abilities, or at least have intelligent conversations about it…

We all hung out at the USA tent for a while after the race, watching the awards ceremony in front of the Castle and taking dozens of photos with fans. They really love their bike racing here! The storm clouds we’d been hoping for to liven up the course a bit (more) finally arrived and we experienced our first Equatorial downpour about 500 meters from the Hacienda. Perfect timing, bike washing was taken care of!

Another relaxing evening and now we’re on the way home. I’m stoked to have survived that first block of racing and am fired up for a ten days at home in Bend to catch up on training. I’ll be ready for the next swing of Sea Otter, World Cup opener in South Africa and Mellow Johnny’s Classic in Texas!