For many years now I've structured my season around July so that I could have a good race at MTB Nats. This worked out well, especially in 2008 when I took second at Mt Snow in Vermont. Even before that race I somehow bonded with that course and it has become one of my favorites - some really good climbs along with some insane rocky rooted out descents.
Anyway, the down side to this is that I've never had really great spring races. Sure I've had pretty good results but never great results. Top 10s, top 5s but never really having the chutzpah to make the podium and feel content with how I did my race. This has meant there have been plenty of time spent towards the end of the race when I was racing by myself, with waning motivation only to beat myself up later because I would lose a bit of time from lap to lap and end up with positive splits. At least for me, when I don't get the positional finish I want I look for ways to make myself feel better. Positive splits do not make me feel better about a race effort.
For this year I decided to put more emphasis on early season form since racing into July kinda peeters out with only a few MTB races on into August. Of course now with cyclocross taking more emphasis and starting in mid-September, it's a little hard to wind down from a peak then quickly wind back up for a solid cross season while still having the motivation to race (and more importantly train) when the late fall hits and the weather turns to shit. Since I have really never had a great race at the DINO series opener at Winona Lake, I set my sights on it as really wanting to podium, perhaps even take the W. Signs were pointing to a good execution of plan when I had a good showing at the PRO race wave of the SERC series at Tsali trails in Bryson City, NC a few weeks back plus good sensations at the DRT Brown County State Park Hesitation Point time trial (minus the mechanical mishap...), but one never knows until the finish line is crossed.
After a week of great weather the trail reports were that they were blazing fast and ultra dry, but reports were calling for some pretty nasty storms the night before. Usually at Winona the magic mud sheds water well, but the pre-ride showed otherwise. I decided to switch to the mud tires to avoid potential issues then headed off to toe the line.
Throughout the first lap the lead group of 4, including, and being pulled by my teammate/coach/friend/business partner/all-around good guy Don put some serious time into the rest of the pack. About 2/3 of the way into lap 1 a crash whittled us down to 3. Starting into lap 2 another crash left Don and me 20 seconds up on 3rd place so we tried to hold a steady high pace. Alas it was not to be since Matt Battin was in 3rd and he was, as he generally can, able to close the gap. With Matt now leading into the third and final lap, Don caught a root and yard sale'd, forcing me to stop for a second while Matt rolled up the trail. Once I got going again I was pleased with how quickly I calmed down and set about closing the gap. It took some time but I brought it back, then went to the front to set the pace. Matt and I were pretty even except on the climbs where I seemed to have just a bit more, so I rode to stay in front as well as ride my own race. Towards the end I sprinted hard out of a sharp corner and got a few seconds, then kept attacking up the series of short hills that ended up getting about a 10 second gap. There was only one minor panic moment with lapped riders, through no fault of theirs, where there was no room to pass so I had to wait what seemed like an eternity for an opportunity to get around. It all worked out and Matt was far enough back that my small lead was preserved. I carried this through the remaining bit of trail to post up for the win.
So I feel pretty good to have achieved the first of my season goals and I guess this is where I have to resist adding too many new goals trying to cash in on my good form. While I can't say it was a perfect day for the team result we wanted it was pretty damned close since Don was able to recover from his crash to hold on to 3rd place and consolation prize of fairly deep gash on his leg. I can say, however, it felt pretty close to perfection to be able to ride a strong race in its entirety then seal the deal in the waning minutes to grab a victory at a target race, and that is pretty sweet.