The Massanutten “Yee Ha!”, held at the end of April, is typically the first downhill race of the season on the East Coast of the US. It is held on the 1997 Grundig/UCI World Cup Course at Massanutten Resort in Virginia, and - until this summer, when Massanutten is set to open as a lift-served bike park - this yearly race has been the only time you can ride the course.
It is a super fun course to race on (nowhere near as gnarly as today’s World Cup courses!), and the organizers really put together a top notch fun race. This was my first downhill race ever in 2012 and I love coming back to it. 2016 was my third time racing Massanutten, and it was a great start to my downhill season!
My training was a bit lacking coming into this race as I have been a full time student and full time Starbucks barista for the past 2 years which has left limited time to get on my bike, or to the gym. I just wanted to have fun, and get some much needed time on the mountain and on my new bike for 2016! I am now riding a Diamondback DB8 and so far it has been awesome! The two weekends before the race I was able to spend a day at Bailey Mountain in Mars Hill, NC getting my suspension tuned in and getting used to the completely different feel of a more advanced geometry. I was even able to get a full day of coaching in with my friend Caroline Washam who has started her own coaching program, Spoked LLC, here in North Carolina. She really helped me dial in my position and confidence, especially on some steep technical trails! (Bailey Mountain is STEEP) I felt pretty confident coming into Massanutten, even if my fitness was not quite up to par.
My boyfriend and I got up early Saturday morning and made the 5 hour drive to Harrisonburg to arrive in time for registration and practice. The weather was not looking promising. We had planned to camp on the slopes (which they allow for free that weekend only), but with the impending downpours we opted to stay with a large group of local riders in their rented house. After settling in we got geared up and headed to the peak. One of the most challenging things about racing Massanutten is the lift ride. You have to hold your bike on the lift with you, which is a bit disconcerting the first couple of goes, but becomes pretty second nature as the day progresses. You have to ride the lift solo though and it is kind of slow. I generally end up falling asleep at least once.
The day was grey and misty and the temperature kept changing. One lift ride we’d be hot, the next, too cold. The conditions were prime though as they had not had any rain the few days previous. The course starts with some amazing off camber rock slabs with multiple lines. This is actually my favorite section of the whole course and once I was warmed up I was nailing the pro line every run. Then you have to pedal your butt off down a road and UP a short section and along a ridgeline. It sucks and it is probably where the race is often won or lost.
I didn’t have the fitness to really push it in that section. After that it is downhill the whole way! (we are riding a downhill race after all) The course is odd in that it seems to have a lot of sections that look similar and so I have always had problems remembering what section I am in and which line I am looking for. This year I finally started to have better recall of where I was on course. The trail is a mix of wet rooty sections that seem to have springs in them, chunky rock sections (not quite gardens, but techy), sandy corners, and long straight fast runs. It is a good mixture of everything. At the very end of this long section they added a new advanced option this year over some large rocks which straight lines the trail. I was actually a bit afraid to ride this in practice, but my friend and coach Caroline, who was also racing, took me to it and helped me conquer it. I was pretty stoked and very grateful to her for believing in me when I was having trouble believing in myself!
Once you clear the long middle section of trail you come out on some more gravel road that you bomb down and enter the last section of trail. This is the crux. You are tired. There are some fun berms and jumpy rollers in this section, but they lead you into the dreaded final rock garden which really has no definitive line. The best riders sort of hop and float through it, but if you tend to stay on the ground in rocks, like I do, your best bet is to find your entrance line(there are some obstacles, aka trees, in the way), let off the brakes and hold on. Once you clear this it is smooth sailing to the finish. That rock garden though…it takes a toll on your hands and arms…and many tires. The whole course is pretty well known for flatting tires. Sniper rocks everywhere. Thus far I have not sustained a flat tire at Massanutten, but my boyfriend was not so lucky this year…he flatted at the very top in his race run, which was a big bummer, but it is all part of racing.
After a great practice, we retired to the “Big House” with the local Blue Ridge Gravity crew and had a grand time discussing lines and bikes and having a big pre race feast. It really was a fun time and made the race weekend extra awesome. Not long after arriving at the house, the rain started…and continued until the end of practice Sunday morning. A good 15 hour deluge. Fun.
With the skies dumping wetness on us on Sunday morning, we decided to wait until the end of practice to do a few runs, hoping the rain would let up, but no luck. I was able to get one practice run in and the course was not in bad shape. It is so sandy that most of it drains well, but it definitely was a bit slippery. A few folks had some bad falls on the off camber rocks at the top of the course and one of the pro girls had to make the tough decision not to race after injuring her hand there in practice. I was worried about riding the pro line, but decided to try it in practice and it went smoothly, so I made the decision to ride it in my race run. The new rock line near the bottom I was a little more worried about and I did the go around in practice.
Then it was race time! Being a lady, we never really know where we will start. Some races put us all at the start, some group us with the guys by category, while others plant us all at the end. This race put the Pro and Cat 1 ladies right behind the Pro men, so I was the 10th person down the course (I am cat 1). In some ways this was good because the course was pretty much the same as when I practiced that morning. The cat 2 and 3 ladies who rode later in the day got a much drier trail, since the sun came out as soon as the first Pro men went off.
My race run was awesome! I nailed the pro line at the top and felt pretty fast through it. The pedally section left much to be desired and I probably lost a good 10 seconds due to my lack of fitness. The middle section of the trail went off without a hitch, but I probably lost another few seconds in one flat spot where I likely should have been pedaling. Then came the new rock line. I came into it a bit slow, but just let off the brakes and nailed it too! I was so stoked about that as I had only ridden it twice in practice! Just the final section and the killer rocks left! I made it through it all pretty smooth until the very edge of the rocks before the finish when I hit a loose rock and it threw my bike a bit sideways…yeeek! I kept it together though and straightened her out and made it across the finish line taking second in Cat 1 women. I managed to get a sub 5 minute time which was my goal, AND I didn’t get caught by any of the Junior Elite riders who went off 2 minutes behind me (those guys are FAST!) I was really worried about them being behind me when I was in the start gate, so not being caught was a good feeling!
The rest of the day was spent enjoying the sun and watching the rest of the racers come down and cheering on the ladies. I was a bit worried when my boyfriend didn’t come down when he was supposed to, but he showed up a bit later with his poor flat tire. I felt bad that he had some tough luck. On practice day his rear shock blew up and fortuitously one of the guys in the house we stayed at had an extra rear shock and let him borrow it. After all the trouble I was bummed that he didn’t get his race run. Oh, the trials of downhill racing.
All in all it was a great weekend catching up with downhill friends not seen since last summer and meeting some new friends out on the mountain, especially a few ladies new to racing. The Cat 2/3 women’s class was pretty large with 9 ladies! I love seeing the sport growing among women and hope to have more ladies to ride with in my class as the year progresses. I am really thankful to all the companies and people who help support me in this crazy sport, especially Flare Clothing Company, Cycletherapy bikeshop, and my boyfriend/bike mechanic/driver, Brad. I have gotten back in the gym now that school is over and I am looking forward to the next race in the Gravity East Series which will be held in June at a mountain in West Virginia that we have never ridden. I love exploring new downhill trails and can’t wait to see all our downhill “family” and wear my new Flare kit!