The Annadel XC is my favorite XC mountain bike race on the NorCal calendar. The race is relatively long (25 miles and ~2hrs), features some fun technical rocky bits, and includes plenty of fitness testing climbing. With many friends and good racers lining up for the Pro Men’s event, I hoped it would be a good battle all day. To make the day even more exciting, I was going to be lining up and squaring off against our team captain, Sam Bassetti, and there are few people I enjoy beating more than Sam.
I drove up to the start with my friends Jim and Cathy, chatting about the course and breaking the race up into segments to plan our approach to the race. My plan was to start fast, keep going fast, and finish fast. My bike of choice for the day was my lightweight hardtail race bike from KTM, the Myroon Sonic, with Rocket Ron tires front and back at 26/28 psi to support my heavier-than-the-average-racer body size. We got there plenty early with ample time to warm up and ready for a couple hours of fun.
There were a whole handful of hitters on the start line that would be contesting the win, among them many of my friends. Jim Hewett, the most consistent racer around and technical riding superstar, is always a huge threat. Even though he is coming off a long season and fighting a cold, I figured he’d be tough to beat on the rough and twisty sections in the second half of the race. Carson Benjamin always has fitness, and when his fitness comes together with smart riding and mental strength he’s a man to watch. Sam Bassetti has had, hands down, the best season of any road racer in NorCal. I knew he would be the biggest engine in the race, but I was unsure of his ability to handle the technical sections of the course (actually, I was sure…sure that he would stink!). Jason King is an old racing buddy of mine, and I had seen on Strava he was going well. Shane basically owns that park, and I knew he’d be ripping all the descents to stay with the best. And finally Xander Sugarman, a young guy on Bear Dev that has been crushing all season long and racing on his local turf was by all accounts the favorite for the win.
The race starts immediately up a short and rocky fire road climb before tackling the most technical small descent in the race, Cobblestone. I fell back at the very beginning after Sam bobbled the climb immediately in front of me and walked up it. Rookie move, Sam…although probably it was a cold and calculated bit of sabotage to try and mess me up. I got back on and kept plugging away to put myself in reasonable position before the descent. At the bottom, a little effort on the pavement put me at the back of a group with Sam, Carson, Jim, and Shane with Xander floating at 10 or so seconds off the front. We kept going along at a reasonable pace along Creek trail, and sometime through the flat windy stuff Sam got away and bridged up to Xander while I was stuck behind a line of riders.
We popped out at Warren Richardson fire road, and then I had plenty of space to maneuver. I bridged up to Sam and Xander right before the steep pitches, where they promptly rode away from me again to the tune of about 10 seconds. A fast descent down N Burma and rocky climb up Live Oak put me back in touch with those two across the dam with no one in sight behind me. We hit the S Burma single track and they rode away from me again at the beginning of the climb. I caught back up in the middle and they dropped me again at the top. I caught back on at the start of Marsh trail.
We had been racing nearly an hour and were at the highest elevation portion of the course. Xander looked pretty calm and collected to me, like he was riding well within himself and in control. That being said, he wasn’t just riding away from us so I knew he was at his limit. I also kept in the back of my mind the hope that he’d be like most young guys and go out hard before blowing eventually (that didn’t happen, although he did have some equipment issues later on when his wheel broke). Sam wasn’t nearly as smooth on his bike and appeared to be wasting a lot more energy, but then again, he has a gigantic engine, is fit from a summer of national level road racing, and has plenty of energy to waste. At the time, I was pleased to be riding in the lead group without digging myself a hole and was looking forward to getting some separation on the descent of Lawndale. Cause let’s be honest, I can shred Sam on these descents. I felt like I had paced my effort well and had plenty of gas for the second half of the course. Ready to turn the screws on Bassetti.
Into the loose rocky start of Lawndale I went, perhaps a bit faster than was prudent on my hardtail. You always run a risk of hitting a sharp rock hard when trying to push it, and that’s what I must have done. I felt the spray of sealant on my leg and hoped it would seal. Alas, my tire kept getting softer and softer until I was hitting my rim on everything. I pulled off to the side as Sam (with a smirk on his face) and Xander kept ripping down the trail. I found the hole in my tire, which looked pretty small and benign, and took a risk that it would seal if I gave it a shot of CO2 without changing the whole tire. I blasted my cartridge in, heard some hissing, and sloshed the sealant inside around till it plugged up. Looking at Strava after the fact, this cost me 1:52 of down time. That’s obviously not ideal, but it’s not too much to recover from. Although I was a bit deflated mentally, I knew I was at least that much faster than Sam.
As I was fixing my bike, Carson and Jason came whizzing by. I popped back on to the course near them and in front of Shane and Jim. It took me some time to get used to handling my bike with way too much air in the rear wheel, but before I knew it I was cruising the pavement and starting up the rocky and long climb of Shultz trail. I caught up to Jason and Carson right when we turned on to Marsh. I was content to cruise along and catch my breath initially after a hard chase, but eventually I was getting antsy to go a bit faster. I got even more excited when I saw Sam stopped on the side of the trail, stretching the cramps out of his legs. He told us that Xander was only a minute ahead and we were still potentially racing for the win. I talked some trash about how he needed to toughen up and kept on my merry way, smugly ready to cruise into my easy victory over him.
Like I mentioned before, I was wanting to go faster on the winding gentle uphill of Marsh and Ridge. With a little extra huzzah I finally found a reasonable spot to pass, which backfired spectacularly when I crashed hard getting back on the trail. It all happened fast, but I must have lost my front wheel on a benign stretch of singletrack when getting back onto the main trail. My glasses went flying, I somehow lost my left glove, and I knocked the wind out of myself. I got up slowly to assess the damage, and hopped on my bike to try to pedal out the numbness in my left leg. As I was laying on the ground, Sam passed me. Drat! It took a bit to get rolling again, and during this time I caught up to Sam and got passed by Shane. I was hurting and my confidence was shaken, but I still wanted to ride out the final 10-15 minutes of the race.
Shane and I hurtled down the descent to the flat one mile roll into the finish. Sam somehow caught up to us, probably by being way better at riding his mountain bike than I give him credit for, and we began to play a tactical game for the finish. I was hoping the others wouldn’t know the finish line as it comes right after a bend and I could get a jump on them. That didn’t work, and Sam lit me up hard in the sprint, and crossed the line looking back at me and smirking for 4th place. I finished 5th. Up in front, Xander had stayed away from a rapidly closing Carson (2nd only 22 seconds back) and Jason (3rd another 20 behind that).
So there you have it, a series of unfortunate events that led to Sam beating me in a mountain bike race. I am shamed.