Fair Hill Classic is a race I've been looking forward to for a while. Last year, it was a really enjoyable course and somehow I convinced myself that having had a really really fun time on it meant that it played to my strengths. That's kind of a funny one right there.
A few things bear into this delusion. First, last year I was playing in a different neighborhood - I never had the race lead, I was never really in the lead group after the first singletrack section, etc. My time last year was almost 5:00 slower than it was this year - so I rode better and did a lot better and got to enjoy the sights near the front but shit's different when you're at the front of the race. Last year I needed to step up my handling against guys who were no doubt good mountain bikers, and enjoyed a pretty decided fitness advantage relative to guys who were good mountain bikers but maybe didn't have such great fitness. This year, in a more expensive neighborhood, the bike handling among some of the guys was just blistering, and they were all pretty fit (save for one guy who was asymmetrically great at driving his bike and sounded like a rusted out 1974 Vega whenever pedaling was on tap).
Last year in mtb races but especially in cx races, I SUCKED at the starts. Having put some considerable work into hole shot practice, I was able to decide to take second place rather than first out of the gate, and rode the long double track anywhere from first to third, depending on choice. That was good. The first single track went fine with me in third and fourth, then I retook the lead on a double track transition and did a section in the lead but got passed by a guy and bobbled as that happened and all of a sudden I'm in fifth. Bounced around positions a lot, and trail traffic opened the gate at times but much more often seemed to let guys back on in traffic jams. There are a lot of sections where you just can't pass.
Bluntly, I was subpar in the single track sections. I was giving 8 or a dozen seconds away quite a lot, and then digging hard to make those seconds back. At one point with three guys up front, the pack of fourth to sixth I was in was STUCK STUCK STUCK in traffic and jeez I think everyone caught up. Fortunately we got out and reestablished ourselves but woof that sucked. The other two guys started sneaking away, but fitness hooked me up and I got back into fourth again, apparently gaining on 2nd and 3rd like mad. Unfortunately if someone was 15 seconds ahead you rarely saw them so you lived without that hunter's motivation. Then I misread a course sign and back into sixth. Dug hard, really hard, to come back from that, but I'd leaned on the fitness too much too often and just wasn't recovering anymore. Then I got this lovely charmer stuck in somewhere in the rear tire in the last section and that didn't help either.
(props to Stan's for doing enough to stanch the leak enough to let me finish. 10' after the finish the tire was REALLY flat)
So I rolled it in for sixth*, a minute down on second. In an all-too-usual scenario, if I'd gone a little bit faster my result would have been way better but a lot slower would have gotten me... exactly the same placing. I hate that.
The simple fact is that guys have been riding their mountain bikes all summer and on a course like this their trail skills outmatch mine by enough. I'm a creature of practice and haven't been riding enough to stay as sharp as I needed to be. It doesn't help that a lot of those guys ride Fair Hill a lot.
*The results are pretty whacked and show a couple of people in there but it wasn't that hard to know who was who, and where they were.