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Idaho’s Twin Rivers Cyclists had its Devil’s Slide XC mountain bike race last weekend.  This annual event is held at Hell’s Gate State Park near Lewiston, ID.  At just 733 feet above sea level, the low elevation and the long season of warm weather give rise to the area’s “banana belt” reputation.  Just a mere 7 hours worth of drive time, over two mountain passes, & you’ve escaped the Montana winter of 2011.  Fearing the infliction of more emotional trauma from another weekend of indoor riding, the choice was a relatively easy one for me.  After mailing in my AAA travel membership dues for the year, I was on the road early Saturday to warmer climes.  Stopped in Missoula & picked up Bill Schultz, the original founder and patriarchal captain of the Kenda-Tomac-Hayes & Subaru-Trek mega-congolmerate (aka, Schultz Brothers Racing).

Pulling into the Hell’s Gate State Park late Saturday afternoon for a pre-ride, we were pretty certain that, at a minimum, we’d be ridin’ in mud.  Instead, we were warmly greeted with the following circumstances: 1) the race course for Sunday had already been marked, 2) the trails were dry & 3) there was still plenty of daylight.   With temps hoverin’ around 50 degrees, Bill & I quickly got on the bikes & took a couple of spins around the course.

The race course is situated on an open hillside that overlooks the meandering Snake River below, just before it forms a confluence with the Clearwater River.  The exposed terrain allows for quick drainage of a trail system shared by hikers, bikers & horseback riders.  Early spring is the best time to ride around here, before the summer heat dries things up & the nasty puncturevine (aka, goatheads) arrive.  Just off the Jack O’Connor Center there in the park is where the race is headquartered.  Bill remembered O’Connor was the great contributing writer to Outdoor Life Magazine for several decades.  So, with all due respect to the dean of outdoor adventure writing, here’s the best I can offer in terms of a course description & race report.

Each lap of the race course is about 6 miles in length &, as confirmed by GPS, with about 900 ft of elevation change.  The lap description is perhaps best broken into three separate & distinct sections, bookended with a prologue & grand finale.  You begin with just a slight uphill that is enough to get the blood flowin’.  From there, you dip into a short bit of fast & fun downhill that has a few quick turns mixed in to keep you honest.  With this initial part completed, you are ready to take on the first section, which is a challenging, long & steady climb out of the canyon.  There are five wide switchbacks along the way, easily navigated, & provide a good racer view of both those ahead & those behind as you grunt up the hill.  When you reach a huge pile of rocks (perhaps the World’s Largest Cairn?!?), you’ve arrived up top.  From there, ride along the plateau for a bit before reaching the second section.  This next section is the signature one of the race…The Devil’s Slide.

The Devil’s Slide quickly plunges racers several hundred feet down in a free-wheelin & crazy descent that tempts you to “just go for it”, but will punish those that initially choose to do so & hesitate about this decision at any point on the way down.  Folks that “bite into this forbidden fruit” and have been punished for doing so tend to be heard mumblin’, “…the devil made me do it.”  With a steep hillside on the left, and an even steeper drop-off on the right, it’s best to keep your eyes focused straight ahead through this section.  The top of the descent starts out incredibly fun.  So much fun that you might just hear that devil resting on your left shoulder encouraging you to “just go for it”.  The angel that’s supposed to be resting on your right shoulder (perhaps the same shoulder separated once before, hmm?) has more than likely already bailed by this point.  When the trail starts breaking into two lines (almost ruts), you’d better commit early to the entry of just one for the remainder of your journey through this underworld.  There are a couple of embedded rock gardens along the way that can actually help with braking & traction.  Of course, there are those who, having made their respective “deals with the devil” it appears, use these to launch themselves into the final portion of the descent, which is a “skittery” and loose right hand swing that produces the desired “slide” effect when executed correctly.  Lock up those brakes here, however, and you’re gonna be flirtin’ with the “dark side” for sure.  Over the weekend, I rode the Devil’s Slide 5x…managing to keep on my bike each time.  The first time thru, I swore I’d be walking the “damned” thing come the race!  The second time got a bit easier (…er, perhaps, more tempting?).  The third time was the closest I came to a disastrous re-enactment of that descent scene from The Man From Snowy River.  The fourth time, during the race, it was crazy seeing broken sunglasses and other assorted “yard sale” items strewn everywhere in this “sacrificial cauldron” of downhill mountain biking.  The fifth time, temptation overcame me & I “just went for it”.  At least I thought I was…‘til that kid from behind launched like a “bat out of hell” over me…WOW!!! 

Newton’s 2nd law of physics defines momentum as the product of the mass & the velocity of an object.  Well, I don’t know what this means exactly, but I know that “mo” comes in handy during the third section of the race course.  At the end of the Devil’s Slide downhill section, you find yourself at the bottom of the hill that you’d worked so hard to climb earlier in the race.  From here, you stay low on the hillside & ride through a section of twisting gullies & ravines.  This roller-coaster of enjoyment takes you up, down, left & right in a swooping effect along the way.  Click, click, click go the gears as you try to pick up speed on a rolling hill & then maintain your momentum through the bermed corners.  Repeat, repeat & repeat.  This section is great fun &, eventually, takes you back to the O’Connor Center where the grand finale awaits.

The lap is almost completed.  All that’s left is only the steepest climb!  A sharp pitched hill that, if you’re not careful, will produce those full-broiled early season leg cramps you’ve been wary of all race.  The good news is that the step gradient is just a relatively short climber before you swing left & see the original start line.  For race day…Cat 1’s = 3 laps. Cat 2’s = 2 laps.  Cat 3’s = 1 lap.

Sufficiently fueled up on Mexican food the evening before (Paraiso Vallarta, across the bridge in Clarkston, WA), fully rested with an extra hour of sleep (hooray for Pacific Standard Time), & thoroughly caffeinated (Starbucks), Bill & I arrived at the race site on Sunday with plenty of time to register & get another pre-race lap in.  Bill Martin & Ross Brown, both from Missoula, had also made the trip over the day before so we got to visit with them as well.  We then joined 40 other competitors in anticipation of the region’s first mountain bike race of the season. 

“…3…2…1…GO!!!”  I was all smiles as I joined the other Cat 2 racers in an all-out sprint off the start line.  The gradual incline quickly produced a lead group of five that included both Bill Schultz & myself.  Now, I know for a fact that there were five in the initial lead group because it wasn’t too long before I clearly witnessed four of them pulling away from me!  I tried to keep the gap from growing.  However, by the time I had reached the bottom of that big climb, Bill had already whipped this lead group well into the 2nd switchback already.  Adding to my troubles, I had been joined up in a second group of around eight racers that had caught me on the initial downhill.  Getting caught up with this crew turned into an energy suck for me as I had to negotiate around them on the way up this climb.  By the time I had gotten to the top, I had passed them all…including one who had gotten dropped from that leader group ahead.  However, I knew if I didn’t put some distance between myself & this group behind that they’d pass me again going down the Devil’s Slide.  Up on top of the plateau, I knew I needed to haul it with a big ring effort.  Turning myself inside out on this stretch, I was relatively successful as only two passed me on the trip down.  At the bottom, I managed to keep them in my sights throughout the roller section.  As they walked their bikes up that final steep climb, just before the finish of the first lap, I pedaled by them & started my second lap.  Sure enough, these downhillers managed to get back on my tail by the time I reached the big climb again!  This time, however, I kept in front of them, stayed focused on the trail ahead, burying myself trying to climb that thing as quick & efficiently as I could.  I afforded myself just a quick peek down, just once at the top, and I didn’t see anyone behind me.  Still thinking they could come, I hurried across the plateau & dove into the Devil’s Slide with as much bravado as I could muster.  I thought I was doing really well on this descent, until I felt this “whoosh” to my left as one of the chasers blew me, hit that corner at the bottom & was gone into the next section.  I was so impressed, amazed &, well, shocked by this gutsy maneuver that I almost figured I should let him go.  This guy had to barely be into his 20’s… no mortgage, no kid’s college to think about and, clearly, no fear of flying.  Well, as you’ll find out later in the story, this day will be remembered by the adage that, “old age and treachery will always overcome youth.”  This youngster was eventually caught on the bottom section & summarily disposed of before the final climb to the finish line.

I’m proud to say that all four of the Montanans that raced this weekend managed to extract some precious medals from The Gem State.  Bill “Boneshaker” Martin is an amazing Cat 1 racer (http://williammartin.com/) and scored a podium finish in the 3 lap race.  Ross Brown scored a 2nd place in his age category & I managed a 3rd place in mine (4th place O/A).  However, the big star of the show was 57 year old Bill “The Beast” Schultz.  He was the undisputed & unchallenged overall winner (all ages, all comers) of the Cat 2 race.  How fast was Bill going Sunday?  Well, on Saturday, he & I were riding laps in about 40 minutes…which, personally, I thought was moving at a pretty good clip.  Bill’s first lap racin’ on Sunday?  0:29:22!!!  He pulled that lead group through the ringer, dropped them like a bad habit & had things sewn up before the start of his second lap.  He even caught some of the Cat 1 racers along the way, and they’d started a minute ahead of us Cat 2’s.  Awesome!

After awards were awarded, swag grabbed, snacks snarfed and race stories swapped between fellow competitors, Bill & I headed for home.  Our weekend trip through Hell’s Gate was heavenly.  On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Idaho’s Twin Rivers Cyclists 5 pitchforks for this early season MTB race.  Leaving Lewiston, it was 60 degrees & sunny.  It appears hell has frozen over here in Montana.  By the time I arrived in late Sunday night, it was 12 degrees & snowing

Pics can be found at  http://www.flickr.com/photos/doug_goodenough/5504823689/in/photostream/

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One Comment

  1. Wow – Early Race Season for sure. You already got your base in?


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