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The Fool's Taper

Updated: Feb 28

A gulf separates the fastest guy in your weekly group ride with top US pro riders.  Top US pro riders find themselves chasing a single repeat champ.  That repeat winner slips well behind in the international picture ranking just 285th (his highest being 26th in 2019).  And then, the best of the best on the international scene similarly fall in line behind 10 or so racers who seem untouchable.  

Serie CR Orotina :: 2.10.24

The scale of excellence in cross-country MTB racing narrows at the tip of the spear and small changes, the most minor tweaks, can be the difference between wearing World Champion stripes and crying into calloused hands.  Those of us somewhere below, well below, the tip could benefit from taking a big giant breath and remembering that we are hobbyists, albeit obsessive serious committed hobbyists.  

How about those that are more than hobbyists though?  Those who’ve committed their lives, even if not as acclaimed international superstars, to the sport of MTB?  What about me?  Should I be so concerned with minor details?  

I’m in a unique situation.  As a MTB racer I found this sport late enough in life that my stoke is still on the upswing.  The list of events, places, and types of rides yet to do remains long.  My pursuit remains full-force.  The biggest bonus?  Because I came into the sport, on a serious level, later in life and after a decade of being a gym rat, I’ve avoided the dreaded chronic injury that plagues so many other 40-somethings.  My knees, hips, shoulders, and neck are confidently intact albeit a bit stooped in posture.  I can pedal long efforts, intense efforts, and back-to-back efforts without the grimace on so many other racers my age (41).  However I have noticed a change.  In my 30’s a cold brew or energy drink would be all I needed to hit the go button.  Now if I want my best I give ample time for my body to refuel and reset.  I taper.  Oh the maddening taper.  Time off the bike.  My wife can confirm that while my body may benefit, my mental and emotional state take on a new attitude, sorry babe.  So I taper about 4 days of off-bike time in advance of a marquee event and though I may be a bit restless the benefit yields proud results.  Taper.  Gotta do it.  

Halfway though on the Gulf of Nicoya.

I’m in a unique situation.  I’m living in Costa Rica operating Nosara MTB and get to either ride bikes with visitors, ride bikes with my employees, or hang out in a bike shop in the beachside jungle all day.  Sometimes capping off the sunset hang with a night ride.  I don’t have a car.  My commute is through palm tree, vine choked, paths home to monkeys, anteaters, coaties, boa constrictors, and crocodiles.  Time off the bike is not possible.  No.  Freaking.  Way.  Not when I see my DtD athletes, NoRA teammates, and friends riding Zwift.  A day off?  No way!  So when I double booked myself in advance of my first 2024 MTB race I simply shrugged.  No big deal.  I’m here to ride bikes. 

The Serie CR MTB races provide 7 opportunities for racers to earn points toward a series title.  Like the US, points earned in the races contribute to a national ranking and call-ups for the Costa Rica National Championship.  Since I’ll miss a bulk of the events I’m not concerned with a series placement.  Since I’m not concerned with the placement I’m really not concerned with the individual races.  These events provide me the chance to take the Nosara MTB Team to competitions, meet other people in the business, and expand my network.  That’s what I tell the sponsors anyway.  Really I just get to go ride bikes hard and fast.  I get to compete.  It’s that simple.  

Mike G riding in Avellana.

Noted above I taper for marquee events.  The February 10th race in Orotina, Costa Rica didn’t make the list.  So when I circled back on our shop WhatsApp account and realized I scheduled an 80-mile gravel tour with an Ironman from Canada for Friday February 9th I shrugged, laughed, and then smiled.  This is perfect Cape Epic training, I told myself.  

The rider did quite well.  Most travelers, even serious riders, struggle with the heat and steepness of Costa Rica riding.  Sure, he ended up with debilitating cramps in the final 15 miles but I didn’t fret too much.  Days earlier I told him a 65-mile route would’ve been more appropriate but he was insistent.  Even while walking up the final few punches he kept a smile painted across his face.  The jungle can do that.  The ocean can do that.  It’s easy to operate in a cloud of glee while here.  This place is magical.  We finished the out-and-back route to Tamarindo in around 6 hours.  6 hours of riding in the sun the day.  Then a quick shower and bite to eat before a 5 hour drive to Orotina.  This is, by definition, the opposite of a taper.  

Standing in the corral brought a first-time experience.  Race starts fill me with energy.  I love the token AC/DC music, yes, even in Costa Rica.  I love the sea of color as racers paint themselves with the must-have sponsor logos: bike shop, brewery, coffee shop, sports drink, and dang I wish they really sponsored me bike brand.  Look left, look right, look behind.  Every set of sunglasses disguised eyes are scanning the field.  Where do I stack up?  What’s going to happen?  The air, electric.  The anticipation, palpable. 

But this is all old news to me.  Don’t be fooled, I love it, but I know it.  The first-time feeling at Orotina wasn’t the electricity put off by others but the complete indifference I felt inside myself.  I wasn’t jacked up.  Sure, I rode 80 miles the day before and already had nearly more than 12 hours on the bike that week.  Yeah I was a little fatigued, but why wasn’t I buzzing with race vibes?  Was it because the race result didn’t really matter?  Was it because I didn’t know even who I was racing?  Is it because simply by being there I was already 1st place in the category: White Dude from USA?  Uninterested in delving further into the why I simply pulled a page out of my 30-something playbook and slurped a 100mg caffeine jacked Maurten gel.  

And then…

The race started. 

The 4 km neutral rollout proved everything except neutral.  Racers tempted fate with counter-traffic maneuvers.  The side of the peloton, usually a safe location, felt like a video game.  Dodge a dog, hop a chunk of broken concrete, swerve around a parked moto.  The middle of the peloton provided no safer passage and we hadn’t even hit the dirt yet.  Then we did and the chaos went away, in an instant.  No, not because the group of riders immediately spaced out, no.  The danger disappeared into a cloud of dust.  The riders to my left, those in front, those anywhere became ghosts.  Faintly visible in the tornado we created.  Like increased hearing when blindfolded, my focus narrowed to that which was in my control: pedaling hard.  I vowed to hold the group no matter the challenge.  I didn’t know where I was.  I didn’t know what was ahead.  No loaded .gpx route, no top tube sticker indicating aid stations, no nada zilch.  Pedal.  

Racing is hard.  The people at the front of the race, the titans of sport who climb podiums regularly know that racing is hard.  Luis Mejia, Colombia Nat’l Champ, PanAm Games Champ, La Ruta multi-winner, and all-around XCMTB dominator, won this race.  He said it was hard.  Accept this simple piece of racing wisdom and you can overcome negative feelings that creep up during hard efforts.  So I pedaled.  And raced.  And accepted it was hard.  

The end of races?  The hard fought last few kilometers (I’m becoming international with my metrology)?  Those moments you witness your heroes soar to hand-raising finishes or head-hung moments of despair?  They are hard.  So as my mental math told me that the finish neared oh-so-close I poured myself into the pedals.  I had passed a long line of strung out riders on the previous climb and tucked into a fast pavement descent putting a good gap between me and them.  Back onto flat terrain I knew they had the group ability to bridge so I kept turning the screws, never surrendering to the groans of my legs.  I’d been out of fluids for almost 10 minutes and the slightest twinge of a cramp showed its teeth, not ready to bite but trying to instill fear.  My estimated 2 bottles for 2 hours strategy sounded great in the air conditioned car ride the day before.  After nearly 100 minutes in 95° another few ounces would’ve been wonderful.  That morning I’d ridden the end of the race course and began to recognize the terrain ahead.  A short dirt road descent into a left hand turn onto singletrack, a stream crossing, a brutally steep short climb back to pavement, and a final left hand turn into the finish chute.  So.  Close.  

The group passed me prior to the singletrack and I fully freed the brakes down the rocky path in order to gain back the gap.  On the final punch I drove the pedals and watched the LED indicators on my computer match the feeling in my throat, I was pinned.  I passed one, and then two, of the 4_ number plates I’d identified as being in my group and shared the final left hand turn into the finish chute with a rider who’s plate read 2 _.  No worries.  I looked back and saw clear air behind me.  I sat up and rolled through the finish line.  That was hard.  

But I was successful.  I looked at my traditional taper model and laughed at my physical prowess.  I’d clocked a seriously fast time for a 30-mile XC race course.  An hour 48 minutes, averaging 16.7 mph on a power course that demanded everything from my legs, and I finished strong.  Maybe the pre-race 80-mile Zone 2 gravel ride is the new XCMTB taper standard? 

Fellow Nosara MTB racer Edwin greeted me at the finish line.  He started on the front line in the 30-39 category, had done this race a couple times before, and is a hammer.  I was only a minute behind.  My post-race feelings soared.  Staring down the final 5 weeks before the Cape Epic and my performance bolstered my claim that I was ready.  As we cheered on the finishers, drinking bottles of hydration and chomping pineapple, another Nosara MTB racer pulled in, on his gravel bike.  1st place.  Then William, our final Nosara MTB teammate finished a near-hour faster than his previous times.  We’d rung up an impressive finish.  

Yadir, Me, Edwin, William (L to R)

As we waited for Yadir’s podium presentation, I asked Edwin to pull the online results.  The Master’s (geez, I’m in Masters here in Costa Rica) Category had 97 racers.  Blocking out the announcer as he called racers to the 5-spot podium, I scrolled for my name.  6th place.  Sixth place by 2 seconds.  Two seconds from the podium.  Two seconds behind that 2_ _ numberplate.  That racer who’d been within grasp but ignored.  Just a scratch of time away from being able to climb onto the final podium position.  The wave of frustration crashed down.  My post-race feelings nosedived.  The “:02” tattooed my soul.  The reading of the results didn’t take away from my effort.  I had in fact tried hard.  I did dig deep and begged my legs to perform their best.  But with those two seconds hanging over my head, I found several instances where I could’ve been better.  

The selfie video on the beach?  A cool capture but during a race effort?!  C’mon man.  

Did I truly attack that final hill?  Or did you pedal hard enough to pass the two racers and called that a victory, a little too early? 

Was that my best?  Probably not after an 80-mile effort the day before.  

And that’s it.  That right there is why we taper.  It’s why we do a pre-race tune up on our bikes.  Why we put new tires on before a marquee event.  It’s why we lay out our race nutrition the day, or days before, and be certain we have the calories and ounces per hour as needed.  It’s why we take this thing seriously.  When we engineer an approach that provides the surest setting to find our best then we can take the result as fact.  This is who you are.  On this day, in this place, at this event.  We get to see ourselves for who we are in our rawest form, post-battle.  The ink has long dried and been forgotten on the first race in a 7 races series in Costa Rica that doesn’t mean much to my career as a bike racer.  But those two seconds still sting.  

I’ve been paying for it ever since.  I did two extra hill climbs the next day back in Nosara.  I’ve done 2 extra laps, efforts, or intervals on many of my subsequent training rides.  Shoot, I just stopped typing and knocked out two burpees.  I’ll be looking for two second gains until early April when the 2nd event in the series takes place in Alajuela.  Before that I’ve got this little stage race in South Africa to deal with.  

I’m going to taper.    

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