It should have rained, but it didn’t. The Pando Fall Classic is known for cold winds, icy rains and tough races, but the weather held off for the 2011 edition. I’ve ridden more than a few bike races, and there’s nothing as mentally tough as a sloshing, sloppy slog through thick black mud while riding completely drenched and shivering for two hours. It is also a lot tougher physically, I suppose.
A merry band of northern Michigan folks made the trip down to Pando Ski Resort for a few laps on the toughest little course south of Cadillac. For mountain bikers used to the wide, fast trails of the VASA or the twisty, looping single track by Lake Dubonnet, Pando is an exotic yet somehow familiar course to ride. Only open during races, Pando is a well-beaten path chock full of roots, chutes and steep climbs. The normal race circuit coaxes riders up a total of 400 vertical feet each 4.5 mile lap. For the bigger riders, that adds up quickly, and the constant pounding of rough trail is almost as tiring as the leg-burning climbs straight up ski slopes.
The Elite class took off with their familiar flash of color and the all-too-strange lack of hard breathing. The Experts (yours truly tucked neatly in the middle of the pack) took off just after, slightly slower but still cruising. After racing for a decade, I still am shocked at how easy some riders can make negotiating tight corners and rough sections look. I labored away, trying to hold onto the wheel of sixth place before my first crash of the day lost me thirty seconds. I blew up chasing the group ahead of me, and spent most of the rest of the race wondering how many more people could possibly be behind me, because everyone and their second cousin had already tooled on by. Their speed, easy pedaling style and complete lack of suffering made the average guy like me wish I had skipped the second helping of brownie the night before.
With just a half mile to go, I crashed. I crashed harder than I have ever crashed on a bike before in my life, and I have had some impressive wrecks. At thirty-three miles an hour, my chain locked up and stopped my rear tire. The whole bike skipped, and before I could curse, I was sliding on the gravel. My head slapped rock with such force the thud of it made me consciously uncomfortable before I stopped. I slid long enough that I clipped my feet out while I was still moving. I heard someone yelling and realized it was me; I was hurt, and thought someone should know about it. A rider went by, then another. I was curiously wondering if I could die of broken ribs, alone and probably in last place (which made dying even more embarrassing) when Warren Van Middlesworth came to a stop by my side.
I have been racing with Warren for two years now, and there’s no better example of what mountain biking is about that him. Laid back, quick to laugh and always ready to help out. He’s fixed my bike minutes before racing me and given me all sorts of tips. At Pando, he rode with me the last half mile to the finish. The whole way, he was smirking and grinning and joking. I didn’t tell him that laughing was making my ribs hurt unbelievably, but his humor and help got me to the finish line. As he rode a few feet ahead of me, he finally told me what he was laughing about. I could barely see I hurt so much, but he kept me pedaling. “Almost there,” he said with a smirk. I grunted back, but I was smiling, too. He took ninth, and I was tenth. Dead last, except for the poor saps who didn’t finish. They, of course, beat everybody who stayed on their couch. That’s a victory, too.
It should have rained, it should have gone better, and I should have tried harder to stay upright. That’s bike racing, really; the culmination of things that didn’t happen weighed against a whole lot of unexpected things that did. It’s a unique experience, however, that in mountain biking, everyone can laugh it off in the parking lot. From experts to beginners, winners to Did Not Finishers, we’ve all got a good story to tell to each other on the way home.
The Pando MTB Fall Classic takes place every September at Pando Winter Sports Park in Rockford, MI.