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Though billed as a mountain bike race, this seemed to me a heck of a lot like a cyclocross race. But more whining later. Why am I going all the way to Seattle for a bike race, you might wonder. Ok, so I did say in last week's installment that I would be helping Ron & Ronda with the timing on their first dual slalom event. Bonus points for those who remembered.

They bought my airline tickets out of Boise, so first I had to drive over there. No problemo. Southwest is still charging the $35 bike fee, much to my dismay. Oh well, what can you do, except fly Continental whenever possible (not wanting to connect through Phoenix this trip, so that wouldn't work for me). So I bent over and gave them my bike one more time, but the joke was on the baggage monkeys because I stuffed more bike clothes in the box and the Y bike is a little heavier than Eddy. I was surprised at how much heftier the assembly was than on Eddy's most recent trip to Houston. Not fun to lug around.

Uneventful flight, then Ronda was notably absent from the gate arrival area at SeaTac. Calling her cell phone proved remarkably ineffective. So I rang Tom and told him the good news of my arrival and possible need for rescue. He was in the middle of having some sort of party, but offered to come get me later if Ronda was indefinitely detained. I moseyed on down to oversize baggage claim, picked up my box, and poof, there was Ronda. Her selected pick-up vehicle, though equipped with a local driver (Justin, stationed at Ft. Lewis), lacked trunk space and so the box occupied the rear seat and we three people the front two seats. Not as comfortable as you might imagine. Her phone would ring when I dialed mine from a foot away. Sometimes. Nice phone. Then Justin missed the exit to the racetrack, providing additional merriment in the form of an out and back to the next exit.

But arrive we did at the Seattle International Raceway gate some minutes later, luckily to find Ron waiting with someone to open this gate, or we would have been walking (and pushing the box along) about a mile to the camping area. Things looked, unsurprisingly for Seattle, a bit wet. I shared some spaghetti with the Wild Rockies team riders (high school boys and Becky) - or more accurately, they shared their spaghetti with me, and went off to bed. Or the ground, not quite satisfactorily modified by the addition of three foam pads and my sleeping bag. It started to rain around midnight, and the drops falling off the tree overhead onto the tent kept me semi-awake the rest of the night. Not what I would call a refreshing evening's rest, but what do you want for free.

Needless to say, I was quite excited at the prospect of riding lots in the mud the next day, and reasoned about the team's suggestion to pre-ride the course in the morning (before first races started at eleven and my race at one) thusly: if I pre-ride, I am wet from when I start that until after the end of my race. Many hours. If I don't pre-ride, I only get wet during my actual race. Therefore I bundled up (kind of chilly, and humid even) and helped with registration. Not a whole lot of people showing up for the beginner race (the one at eleven), slightly worrisome to those who make their living at this thing, i.e. Ron & Ronda. But then roughly the same amount of people showed up for the sport and expert races, where normally the beginner field is rather larger than the sports, and the sports again larger than the experts.

Once all the pre-registered riders were signed in, I was free to go slap my bike together and warm up. Or try to warm up. Brr. Sun was out every once in a while, but still pretty chilly. Rode around with Becky a bit, and got my first look at parts of the course. Some good (grassy fields and parts of the race-car track), some bad (slippery mud over roots and river rock). Did a flying dismount on one of these mud spots and got a nice bump-raising whack on the shin from my bike as I went along. Not the last flying dismount or minor injury of the day. There really weren't any long sustained climbs, but a few steep little pitches and lots of rolling up and down in the woods. Having walked Atlanta's Olympic mountain bike course, this seemed to be similar in feeling, some places at least. Ron's new flyover was pretty neat - a portable under/overpass so the course can safely cross itself. It was right by the dual slalom course, which Becky talked me into taking a practice run on despite the race flyer's instructions to the contrary. Beck had somehow managed to borrow a new titanium hardtail with a $700 front air shock (RS Sid) and a fender. To race on, instead of her relatively heavy Pro-Flex. Must be nice to have connections.

The DS course here was pretty flat, especially compared to Deer Valley where it's on a ski run. About ten gates per course, three 18" jumps, a couple bermed turns, the rest flat turns. Best times were under 25 seconds, but that wasn't until the next day so will come along later in the report.

We were riding back to the start line, trying to decide which pieces of warm clothing to shed for the race. About one, it starts to warm up a little, you see. Tom picked this moment to arrive for spectating purposes. He didn't bring a bike, so I let him ride mine for about a minute. He picked up the cool-mountain-biker jargon immediately, as words like "cushy" began to roll off his tongue.

Very quickly it was time to line up. Wow, more experts than I have ever seen at one race. They do four laps, each lap being between 5.25 and 5.5 miles. Unfortunately the sports had to do three of the exact same laps, while the beginners who were all hopefully off the course, only did two. Zap zap zap, the experts and younger sports are off. I scrutinize my surroundings, and come up with only one likely Clydesdale among the vet sports. He has his back tag poked in his jersey pocket, but I sneak up and pull it out to confirm that he is indeed a Clydesdale.

We are off, and hammering. I will now take you on a virtual lap. The start is on dirt just off some of the pit area, angles onto that pavement for several hundred yards, then cuts through a camping-type area to the first road crossing. On the other side of the road, head back in the direction of the start for a hundred yards on a nice grassy field, then pop into trees for some singletrack - not too muddy here. Then pop back out, down a four-foot berm, briefly another field, and back into trees for some really slippery singletrack. Back out on a field, cross over the road again, and go under the flyover (remembering to duck) into some more slippery singletrack. Finally that is over with, and head across a mud flat (couple inches, but solid bottom). Possible to grind through the mud, but not much fun. More singletrack between a tire wall and berm, then onto the track for a turn, flats of gravel and up the DS course over top of the flyover. More slippery singletrack (a theme perhaps? a cyclocross perhaps?) and another mud flat. Then a rutted fire-road type descent, to a sidehill singletrack which is also somewhat slippery. Lots of running here for me, and not a few more flying dismounts. This comes out eventually to a climb on the track for a couple hundred yards, pops up a pitch to the flats behind the grandstands, and runs along them for a while. Turning off to another sidehill singletrack which ends in a nice drop to the track. This was Tom's spectating position for several laps. Grinding back up some track, then a short and frivolous field loop brings you back to the start/finish.

There was the course, but what you all really want to know is how I did on it, right? Hung out well for the first mile, then people started passing me on any portion requiring technical riding skills as I was all over the place. The other (secretive) Clydesdale is whoosh, gone in the singletrack with most of the vet sports. My heart rate is pegged, more on this relatively flat course than on something with a long climb where I would be forced to pace myself. After the first lap there aren't many people left to pass me. Yet what do I see as I begin my second lap but the other Clydesdale, and I am gaining during the flats. Things might be looking up.

Sadly, not to be. He disappears again as I am busy in the singletrack - flying off my bike, finding new places to splash mud, and creatively cursing. Ok, it wasn't all that creative, if you must know. I do spot a particular Wild Rockies team guy going over the flyover as I go under, same as the first lap, so we are both consistent at least. As I wheeze out of the trees to head up the track midway through my second lap, two experts motor on by. Yow. After getting a good nick on my arm from blackberry bushes while letting another expert pass just before the drop, I manage once more not to biff *right* in front of Tom, and go back to the start for lap number three as more experts start trickling by. It doesn't become a flood, as even with so many they are well and truly strung out. I grab another PowerGel and suck it down. Handy things, those neutral feed zones.

On the bright side, I only have one more lap and no broken bones. On the dark side, I am already muddy, bruised, bloody, and battered. Also getting a little tired. I expect this pattern to continue for the balance of the race. Unexpectedly, imagine my surprise when my saddle breaks from a ground impact on yet another "superman". It hangs on for a bit, then totally separates into a cushion assembly and a rail assembly. Guess which one stays attached to the bike. Now a guy finished the Olympic MTB race with a similarly broken seat, but this is ridiculous. I manage to pound it partially back on, enough to gingerly ride the rest of the race as long as I throw in lots of running on sections where I would probably just crash and make it come off again anyway.

Some years later I finish. The tagboard shows the other guy did of course finish in front of me, though he is just leaving the finish area so maybe not by too too much. I felt pretty spanked though. Tom, after his fine spectator support which apparently did not provide enough exertion for self-heating, is cold and heads home. Ok, now that I am stopped I notice that it does seem silly to be standing around in shorts and a wet jersey when everyone else is wearing multiple coats. But first I go wash off my bike and partially myself. Becky finishes up her four laps (tried to downgrade to sport but no dice) looking fresh as a daisy thanks to the fender on her loaner bike. She gets fourth. Dale Knapp, the current national cyclocross champion, has oh-so-unexpectedly won this cyclocross-esque race in the pro/expert men's division.

I go put on multiple layers of clothing after getting my arm swabbed off by the EMTs as the beginner awards are given out. I have just one scratch that needs gauze because it is still leaking a little. Return in plenty of time to shiver in anticipation of my second second-place prize, which exactly matches the brake pads I got at the Barking Spider (yellow in color) and also a medal which is of course exclusive to this particular event and placing.

Awards are over with, and that means it's time to start teardown. Which is rudely interrupted by a sleet/hail storm, and left not entirely finished as the staff crew pile into available vehicles and head to town (Auburn) for a shower with attached room at the Nendels Valu Inn. Across the street from a just plain Valu Inn, causing Tom some confusion (as well as the other desk clerk) when he unwittingly comes down to save me from having to sleep in the tent again. He thought we would just watch a movie, and so we do, but then I get the futon in the tv room instead of the ground at SIR.

Tom gets to drive down to Auburn once more in the morning to drop me off, but opts not to stick around for the fun of the dual slalom, instead going off to drive his ski boat. A little chilly for that if you ask me, but he has a diehard friend who wants to ski every day.

And the fun is soon under way as Becky somehow obtains the keys to the dirt bike, whisking me off (yaaah!) to the finish tent at the dual slalom course. Where I spent the rest of the day working the timing software on a laptop that had no battery in it and was thusly easily killed by random people trying to "help" move wires around. Let's just say we learned once more the true meaning behind the mantra of "save early and often". These small delays allowed Ron hold his bunny-hop contest while I was busy typing in names and numbers for the second time. Ronda was not a happy camper, to coin a phrase. Actually, it went fairly smoothly though slowly after that.

Here's the setup. Two courses, one red, one blue, each course has an electric eye at its start and finish. These are tied to a connection box that has a serial cable to talk to the computer and a TAG-Heuer 503 timer to provide the desired 1/1000 second accuracy timebase. Retarded DOS software has race database and accepts signals from the lights, after all the numbers are in you just tell it which number is on which course.

Each individual must make two runs, one on each course, the times for which are added to provide a qualifying time for entry into the finals, which are structured as tournament ladders for each of the classes and involve another two runs against each other by seed-pair competitors for each elimination. In theory large numbers of people would be eliminated by not having fast enough times (like top 16) but since we didn't have all that many people an executive decision was made to let everyone into the finals. For qualifying, pairings don't matter as the software did a fine job of keeping track of course and times, and even printed nice reports.

In the finals elapsed time no longer matters, so the start lights can be switched off. For the two runs in an elimination, the sum of the two differential times wins, with the further restriction of a maximum differential of 1.5 seconds to keep things close. So if rider A on course 1 beats rider B on course 2 by 0.753 seconds for their first run, then rider B must make up that 0.753 seconds plus a little bit more on course 1 in the second run to avoid elimination, while rider A on course 2 has a 0.753-second cushion and can just stay even with rider B. Of course rider B might be more likely to crash because he's trying to make up time, but that's racing for you.

This took all day. Surviving a dead walkie-talkie battery and some ensuing shouted communication for the final rounds (then we got the phones working), we barely finished timing by 6, whereupon I went back to base camp, threw my still-somewhat-muddy bike back in the box and found Justin to give me a ride back to the airport. Having arrived at the airport, the check-in agent, perhaps dazed by the women's hockey team checking huge hockey gear bags and bags of sticks (also headed for Boise), did not even ask what was in my box. She knew it was oversize, because she had me carry it over to a cart after saying it would obviously not fit through the opening on the conveyor behind the counter. Perhaps, here's a new theory, the agents at the big airports (Houston and Seattle, say) are too busy to care much about bikes in boxes, while at smaller airports (Salt Lake and Boise, say) the agents are more bored, looking to apply chapter and verse of their airline's particular regulations relating to oversize baggage. Except Continental, who actually doesn't charge for a bike if it's the only thing you check.

Another uneventful flight, ending at 10:40pm, which means a midnight drive across Idaho. Well, put the pedal to the medal then. The GTI did fine, a little over three hours on the interstate (275 miles, about the same time as the Audi took via the twisty, slightly shorter way during the day). My fine new stereo did an interesting little intermittent power cutout which bears looking into, so on the list that goes.