Monday, July 20, 2015

2015 USA Cycling National Mountain Bike Championships

When I received my appointment to be the Chief Referee of this year's US Mountain Bike Nats I was elated and at the same time terrified. I have worked big races before (chief at Collegiate and 24-Hour Nationals, UCI chief for numerous C1 races, vice chief and other positions at UCI World Cups, and as part of the crew at the Bromont World's), but nothing had ever been as complex or as fraught with the possibility of failure as this one. For the first time in many years, USA Cycling had decided to re-combine all mountain bike disciplines at one national championships venue—in this case Mammoth Mountain, in California, home of the fabled Kamikaze downhill competition. And I was going to be chief.
A lot of this volcanic area looks as barren as the moon
Approaching the Mammoth Lakes area
This year, we were going to award Stars and Stripes jerseys in five different disciplines: the venerable cross-country (XC) and downhill (DH), the action-packed short-track (STX), the exciting dual slalom (DS), and the up-and-coming Enduro. Mind you, we were not only going to have competitions for the Elite riders in the sport who were competing for the title of "National Champion," but we also had hundreds of entrants in the amateur classes that are separated into separate (mostly 5-year) age groups, starting with the 6 – 8-year-olds and going all the way to the 80+ level. Quite frankly, I have no idea how many distinct race starts we had. It was a bunch!
How's that for a dense schedule? It doesn't reflect all the different age categories
In the weeks leading up to the competition I had been poring over the event schedule, trying to figure out how to individually assign each of the eight fellow commissaires who would be waiting for my guidance. Let me use this analogy: Each one of these eight is like a fully accomplished musician, a fabulous virtuoso on whatever instrument is his or her forté. They can play together and make beautiful music. But bring in a conductor worth his salt, and they are going to elevate their art to something rare and truly memorable. Well, I was supposed to be that conductor.
On top of the world, or at least at the start of the DH
I arrived last Tuesday afternoon, and that evening three other officials who were going to work the first day of practice with me arrived as well. On Wednesday, the rest of the crew arrived. The first day was taken up with meeting the various staff members, be it USAC or Mammoth Mountain Resort employees, with whom we would work hand-in-hand over the next six days to make this event a success.
I got to ride this lift at least a dozen times
This is the easy part of the DH ...
... and this one is more advanced
My days usually started at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., or so it seemed—that was the time I'd wake up, thinking about the upcoming day and its challenges. Sometimes I'd fall back asleep, sometimes not. At 5:30 a.m. the night was over for sure and I'd be on the mountain on a few mornings at 6:30 a.m., the rest at 7:00 a.m. My secretary, Leslie, would pick me up in one of the rental cars our crew had and we'd drive the mile to the venue. Our crew of nine was distributed over five different hotels so that with only two cars we also had to work out a transportation schedule.
Downhillers on the way to the top
Surveying the big drop
We'd start the day with a general meeting, going over the various positions and times that everyone would cover. Man, was I glad that I had worked out the entire schedule for everyone, hour-by-hour, for the entire race! I don't think my brain would have cooperated after a few days.

If you're really good, somebody may give you shade, too
The women's Pro field at the STX

Let me tell you, we totally lucked out with the weather. We never received a drop of rain until about an hour after the conclusion of the championships on Sunday afternoon. It was sunny, and if you were not standing in the shade (or riding the chairlift to the top of the downhill) it was actually hot. We could not have asked for more perfect weather. Just imagine standing all day on a mountaintop at 9,700 feet, with wind and rain whipping you, observing and supervising DH starts. Instead we got to enjoy the amazing scenery that Mammoth has to offer, with wild peaks that are much less forested than those in Colorado and where the volcanic soil looks barren and even alien. I probably took a dozen trips up to the top of the mountain during my week at Mammoth using the chairlift, an eight-minute ride from the base where the various finish lines for all races were located. Our race HQ was inside of the big Canyon Lodge, and none of the finish lines was farther away than a quick three-minute walk. The perfect venue!
Technical Assistance Zone, take 1
Technical Assistance Zone, take 2
Technical Assistance Zone, take3
My crew worked their assigned positions with their usual professional aplomb. We were all in radio contact, and my role was that of making sure that everything kept moving along in its intended ways. To most bystanders it probably looked as if I was the only one who wasn't working at all but just walking from here to there or standing around, seemingly doing nothing. Most of the time I wasn't even visible as I was on a lift, in the office, or on a trail. But believe me, all the time I was thinking, talking on the radio, solving problems, making decisions, offering guidance, answering questions, and preparing the next day's riders' meeting schedule or sending off an e-mail to USA Cycling or checking up on something on the UCI website (as this was a national championship, certain riders were governed by UCI rules).
In dire need of technical assistance, take 1
In dire need of technical assistance, take2
The hardest part of being the CR is having to make unpopular decisions. What's usually involved is some scenario that we didn't anticipate when we (i.e., USAC staff and I) wrote and edited and discussed and re-edited the Technical Guide, in an effort to cover all eventualities. And of course, we always miss something somewhere. And that's when the poop hits the propeller blades. There were two individuals who were totally out of line in their language and behavior toward me, but two is two too many—especially when one of them physically threatens you. C'mon, it is a bike race!
Practice on the Dual Slalom course
Those kids love to hop!
With just a few exceptions, the atmosphere for those five days of competition was relaxed and congenial. Lots of folks came up to me to express how much they were enjoying themselves. Now, that's what makes the long hours worth it. And seeing familiar faces is even better! There were Fred and Suzanne Schmid from Waco, James Webb (now from Austin?), Payson McElveen (who is now hailing from Durango), Luke Fleming, and numerous other Texas products who said hi or gave out hugs. That's always a special moment for me.
82-year-young Fred Schmid on the line of the XC—he took another jersey
Notice the rainbow stripes on Fred's jersey? He earned them the old fashioned way
By the same token, seeing familiar faces from the Pro ranks (and being recognized by them) is an indication that despite my having switched internationally to the anti-doping front doesn't mean that I am totally forgotten. That mutual respect for difficult jobs is still there, and let me tell you, it's not easy to be a Pro, especially not when you are a woman mountain biker. Just ask 16-time national champion Jill Kintner.
Dual Slalom racer transport
While most riders came out of their battles relatively unscathed, some had encounters with the loose ground and the big rocks. Especially downhill and dual slalom see their fair share of crashes. No wonder we require full-face helmets for both events. Mikey Haderer, a Pro who was running his last practice run, overcooked one berm and single-handedly gave us a 13-minute course hold. Ever the man, he hobbled somehow to the announcer's booth—separated shoulder and fractured heel non-withstanding—and helped color-commentate the finals of that competition. He may have refused the ride to the hospital, but he did not refuse the libations that kept him rolling. The next day, arm in a sling and holding on to a beer, he co-announced the Pros' DH finals, a race that he had hoped to be a part of, just in a different way.
Mikey, right after crashing in his final practice run
Mikey being evaluated by the on-site medics
Mikey the day after, self-medicating and announcing
The spectators were by far not as rowdy as they are at Collegiate Nationals. There was some partying, there was some beer, and there were a few odd outfits, but overall this was much more serious than the student equivalent. From chair #16 I observed a dozen or two die-hard fans in the downhill rock-garden, blowing vuvuzelas and using a bull-horn to heckle the riders, but otherwise things were pretty calm.
Some were certifiably weird....
We ended it all on Sunday with the Enduro, a competition that sees riders start various timed downhill sections in a proscribed sequence. The rules are a bit convoluted and riders notoriously don't show up at the riders' meetings, so some of them managed to miss their starts, which resulted in a DQ. It was not the prettiest way to end such a great and successful week of racing, but while 180+ racers had no problem taking responsibility for themselves by being at the start when posted, a dozen or so were not able to do so. Quite a bummer.
Talk about intensity at the Pro men's start
Our group of commissaires finally got a chance to go out together for dinner (after a USAC-sponsored evening on Wednesday) as we all got off on time. All week long I had left the mountain no earlier than 7:30 p.m. and as late as 8:15 p.m., but on Sunday we all congregated for Happy Hour at 5:30 p.m. and celebrated the fact that we had pulled of this extremely complex and crowded schedule of events without any delays or mistakes on our part. My kudos goes to my entire crew!
Hoppy Hour!
I left Mammoth this afternoon with the one and only flight out of MMH, and am now in LAX. From here I'll hop over to Las Vegas and then take the red-eye to DFW. I'm scheduled to arrive in Lubbock at 10:34 a.m. tomorrow. I'll run home, take a shower, quickly check the mail, and then drive down to Temple so that I can be in Austin on Wednesday morning for my intake for the ablation. Crazy life.... Wish me luck.


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