MORCS #1 - Bonita Extreme - Meridian, MS

It's that time of year!  What time you ask?  It is XC racing season.  For those who are unfamiliar, XC = Cross Country.  In mountain biking terms this means racing on singletrack through the woods.  Skills required include technical bike handling over roots and rocks, endurance to go the distance, as well as having a nutrition strategy.  Oh yea.....we also wear spandex like the roadies.

The XC racing series I have been focusing on the last two seasons is the Mississippi Off Road Cycling Series or MORCS for short (nanoo nanoo).  The MORCS series consists of 8 races held on singletrack trails throughout Mississippi. The races dates start in March and finish in October. It includes an awesome marathon distance race at Noxubee for bonus points.  Ok.....enough background....let's get onto the first race.

Yvette cleaning her drivetrain
before getting muddy.
I had never ridden at the Bonita Lakes trails in Meridian, so Wendi and I decided to pre-ride the course the morning before the race. The forecast for Saturday night and into Sunday morning predicted heavy rain and thunderstorms.  This weather forced me to consider riding my singlespeed Niner so I could roll on knobbier tires. Riding the singlespeed would also save the drivetrain on my geared bike. With bikes on the rack, we headed east down I-20 toward Meridian.

The park entrance was easy to find and we followed the orange tape to the trailhead.  A teammate, Brian Bacola, sent out a great course walk-through the day before which made it really easy to find and follow the trail.  Based on the ride report and on rider comments about how technical and climby the trail was, I was a little worried about riding a rigid singlespeed. Once we got on the trail I was relieved to see it wasn't that bad. There were lots of roots and a few climbs, but nothing compared to the terrain we had been riding the week before in NorCal.  The one thing I did notice about the Bonita trails was the complete lack of flow.  The trails were very start/stop with many switchbacks, which actually lended itself very well to a bike with one gear (I rode 32/20 gearing on a 29er).

The race course was published as 8.5 miles and I rode 7.5, so I knew I missed some of the trail that likely hadn't been marked off yet. Averaging close to 10mph I knew I was going to be in pretty good shape for the race. The only wildcard was the weather and what bike to ride.  We packed up and headed home.

Not surprisingly, I didn't sleep well the night before the race. This was mostly due to the sound of the rain drip dropping on the roof of my new home in Jackson, along with the anticipation of the first race of the season.  I woke up around 5:30, slammed a cup of coffee and ate my normal breakfast.  I figured since I was eating about 3 hours before race start I would eat a bit more oatmeal than I normally do.  Showered quick, grabbed a cup of coffee to go and hit the road to Meridian. I noticed that both of my hamstrings were really sore from yardwork the day before, and my left shin was still splinted from a spring break bowling excursion with the little one.  This worried me a little considering my legs would be doing double duty on a singlespeed.

On the drive to Meridian I listened to a couple of podcasts on Mountain Bike Radio and reflected on the pre-ride the day before.  My breakfast was sitting pretty heavy and my stomach was a little upset, which was probably due to both eating a lot of oatmeal and drinking Starbucks coffee which can be a little acidic.  I arrived at the park about an hour before the race was scheduled to start.  I spent some time chatting with teammates and catching up with people I hadn't seen since the previous season.

Still not convinced about riding my singlespeed, I decided to do a quick loop on the front section on both my geared Air9RDO and my SIR9.  It was an easy decision to stick with the bike with the singlespeed, primarily because of tire selection.  On my geared bike I run Maxxis Ikons front and back.  These tires are awesome on buff trails and loose dirt over hard ground. They are less than stellar on wet, muddy trails.  On my SIR9 I run a 2.4 Ardent in the front and a 2.1 Ignitor out back.  These tires, combined with a rigid fork, gave me much more purchase and confidence on the slick singletrack.  I headed back to the car and zipped my race number onto the bike of choice.

Perfect bike selection
I spent a good 10 minutes or so spinning around the park on asphalt and getting my heart rate up before the call for lineup.  At the starting line I saw a number of familiar faces.  There are two of us who raced Cat 3 last year and have moved up.  All of the other guys racing category 2 in the 30-39 age group have ridden in this category for a year or more, so they all have more racing experience than I have. The tension at the line was pretty thick as everyone was sizing up the competition.  The categories in front of us were starting to get called off the line.  In races like this, we usually start in waves, spacing about a minute between the age groups within the categories.  As we were moving up to the start, one of the more experienced guys lined up with me cracked a joke about choosing a rigid singlespeed for this race. This started to make me doubt my choice a bit.

As the "go" was called for our group of six, I bolted off the line and got the holeshot through a gated entrance on the gravel road leading up to the single track.  The road winded up to the right and got a little steep. At this point, I heard the shifting of gears behind me and I was passed by three of the guys in my category as fast as I dusted them off the line.  My heart sunk and I was starting to regret the choice of bike as I ground up the final little climb before swooping into the woods to the left.  Once on dirt I started to find my flow and the four of us packed up pretty quickly.  I recovered a bit and went on the attack, slowly picking off all three of them until I moved up to the lead within the first three miles of trail.  I found that the rigid singlespeed with burly tires was much more confident in the slick turns of the trail and greatly simplified the climbs as I didn't have any loss of momentum while seeking the correct gear.
Best fan club

I pushed hard through the first lap and started passing the slower of the 20-29 guys by about the 7 mile mark.  I felt really strong on the climbs and worked to keep my heart right in the middle of zone 4 only peaking up to 5 on the three punchy climbs.  Every time I ride my rigid bike I remember how much I love the way it tracks the trail with no anticipation or compensation for suspension travel.  It just goes where you point it.  Coming out of the trail through the start/finish I tossed my empty bottle towards the team tent and looked out for Wendi around the next turn.  Her and Jake were right there at the entrance leading back up the gravel road cheering for me and holding out a fresh bottle.  Perfect handoff!  Back up the road to start on the second lap.

On trails where I have rarely ridden the second lap is always a little better.  You have seen the trail once so you at least know roughly what to expect.  This lets you relax a little since there is a bit less anticipation of what is around the corner.  I continued running into 20-29 traffic and took the opportunity to sit on there wheel to relax a bit.  In hindsight this was the only mistake I made all day long.  I knew that I was going softer on the second lap and it showed when I started seeing one of the guys in my group behind me in switchbacks with about 3 miles to go.  He was the two year reigning champion for cat2 30-39 in Mississippi and wasn't going to go down without a fight.  I started ramping back up the effort but I feared that I had given up too much ground to him.  Switchback after switchback he was getting closer.  The last half mile of the course was gravel with a few little climbs and I knew it was going to be challenging to hold him off as he was on a geared bike and I only had one ratio.

First podium of the season
The above prediction played out almost exactly.  As soon as we popped out of the woods and on the gravel I blasted down the hill but as soon as it flatted out I heard the gears of my pursuer and he walked by me with ease as my legs spun out in excess of 120rpm.  I gave it all I had through the finish but there was no catching a bike with gears at this point.  I was very happy with my finish on the podium in second place for my first cat2 race.....on a rigid singlespeed while everyone else was riding gears.  We spent a good couple of hours hanging out after the race chatting with teammates and other riders reliving the high and low points of the race.  Our team had a good number of podium finishes for the day and everyone was looking forward to the next race in Hattiesburg on April 6th.  I will have to take a drop for that race as I will be in Arkansas that weekend riding the Ouachita Challenge.  Stay tuned for that ride report.

Ride on.

Click here to see my Strava activity for this ride.

Jason Shearer