After a long day in the saddle Nick is greated by his family.
Nick Stillwell is a member of our GrassMoots Team and writes in this week about his 4th Vision Quest bike event that covered 56.5 miles and climbed 11,000 feet! He writes…….
Participated in my 4th Vision Quest this weekend here in So Cal and boy I’m glad that’s out of the way…that is one tough event!
It hasn’t really rained here in weeks but late Friday night and early Saturday morning it started to rain and was still raining at the 5:30am start of the race. My alarm went off at 3:50am Saturday morning and I quickly got ready and tried to stuff some food down. My friend Eric picked me up at 4:45 and we headed to the start. There are two events (Counting Coup and Vision Quest) and both mass start at the same time from the Blackstar Canyon gate. Eric was doing Counting Coup, roughly 44 miles with 8,600 feet of climbing, and I was doing Vision Question which is 55 miles with near 11,000 feet of elevation gain. Both events are on the same course climbing Blackstar Canyon, traversing Main Divide, and then head down Silverado Motorway to aid station 1. I always meet Court at this aid station to give her my light, grab my sunglasses, and some fresh bottles.
The event started off normal with the exception of the rain and being cold. The last 3 times I’ve done the event I’ve been able to start without arm warmers. This time I had a jersey, arm warmers, vest, and a jacket to hopefully keep somewhat dry. It’s a fast dirt road out to the first climb and this year was no different. Brian Gordon (Specialized/Baghouse) and cycling legend Tinker Juarez (Cannondale) led the road out with a few other fast guys. I wasn’t too far back and once we started climbing a few groups began to separate and I settled into what I felt was a good pace for the 8 mile 2,000 ft climb up Blackstar. About a third of the way up Blackstar we hit some serious mud and everyone was stopped dead in their tracks forced to carry their bikes. I felt like my bike weighed about 70 pounds with all of the mud on it. After carrying, then pushing, then carrying, then pushing, it was finally starting to get light out and I was able to find a stick to try to get some of the mud off. Prior to that I had just been using my hands and pulling chunks of mud from my tires and between the fork brace and chain stays. A climb that typically takes me around 45 minutes at a solid clip ended up taking well over an hour and needless to say everyone around me (at least that I could see) was frustrated, wet and cold.
Once we reached the top of Blackstar we began the climb/traverse across Main Divide truck trail over to Motorway. It’s a grueling rough fire road that’s even more difficult when your hands won’t stay on your grips because your gloves are wet and muddy. I knew once we got past the Blackstar dirt that Main Divide would be much better and it was…albeit still cold and wet and we were definitely still carrying some serious residual mud on our bikes. I made it over to Motorway and began the singletrack decent to aid station 1 finally making it there at about 7:50am – my original goal being 7:20am. There were quite a few people at the bottom of Motorway that had already DNF’d, ridden back down Blackstar, and then drove over to the bottom of Motorway to cheer people on. Being cold and wet and my bike a total mess I definitely did not want to continue but I grabbed my stuff from Court (and Griffin!) and started pedaling up Maple Springs. I had brought my phone with me to take pictures and some video but until that point my hands were so muddy I didn’t even want to try to get it out.
Maples Springs is a fire road that does much better than Blackstar after the rain. It takes you up to an area known as four corners which is the intersection of Main Divide truck trail again and the top of Harding Truck trail. At a good clip it’s about an hour climb. From there the fire road gets a lot chunkier and you head up and around Modjeska Peak, through the “saddle” of Saddleback Mountain and then eventually to Santiago Peak. Once you hit the peak you descend the rocky and rutted backside of the peak for about 10 minutes until you hit Holy Jim. Holy Jim is super fun twisty singletrack decent with a lot of switchbacks. It typically takes me just short of 30 minutes from top to bottom. The dirt by now was awesome but you definitely had to watch your head for some overgrown trees as well as the occasional hiker coming up. I’m all for multi use trails but it still floors me when people choose to hike up a somewhat blind singletrack trail when there are 300 mountain bikers coming down!
Once you get to the bottom of Holy Jim there are 4 or 5 stream crossings and then you hit Aid Station 2. This is the point where Counting Coup essentially finishes and heads out Trabuco Creek road to the finish while VQ riders make the dreaded left turn and do a lollipop loop up Trabuco and West Horsethief, across Main Divide, and then back down Trabuco Trail (another 12 miles and 2,500 feet). I grabbed a few items from my drop bag, got my bottles refilled, and started the tough pedal up the rocky Trabuco Trail. With fresh legs I can climb Trabuco to the West Horsethief cutoff in less than 30 minutes but after already climbing close to 9,000 feet I was moving slow. Just before I reached the West Horsethief cutoff Tinker came cruising by already on his way down. I hit West Horsethief in 7th place and started the grueling hike a bike. From the Trabuco turnoff to Main Divide the West Horsethief climb is a little over a mile and a half but gains nearly 1,500 feet in elevation. Once I unclipped for the first time I pushed my bike all the way up until it levels off and becomes rideable again (at least for me) just before the Main Divide. I’ve tried to ride some of the Horsethief switchbacks and for me they’re just too steep and loose and I’ve found that getting on and off the bike seems to take more energy and time than just trying to push and move as fast as you can up the hill.
I finally got to the top and hit Main Divide where the Warrior’s Society cooks burgers, hand out cokes, and all sorts of good snacks. I was the 8 or 9th rider to come through and apparently I was the first that took a burger handout…unbelievable! Tim Panttaja, a Warrior’s Society member and former owner of Switchback Cyclery, helped me get a little more residual mud off my drivetrain and lubed my chain for me. Also saw Jon Kearley who runs Non Dot Adventures and happened to be up there hanging out waiting for riders. I was able to snap a quick photo with both and then with burger in hand, Jon and I pedaled the quick 20 minute traverse across Main Divide to the top of Trabuco Trail. I hugged Jon’s wheel all the way to the bottom of Trabuco Trail and then quickly blasted out the fire road to the finish at the end of Trabuco Creek Road.
I ended up finishing in 7:33, nearly an hour and a half longer than my fastest time of 6:09 in 2013. Ironically though I ended up in the top 10! Once I knew my times were all off and there was no way I was getting close to 6 hours it was more about having fun and just finishing. There were only 34 riders that finished VQ (which I’m guessing is the least they’ve ever had), with 43 who started and didn’t finish, and 47 who didn’t even start. Counting Coup had many more riders but still quite a few that threw in the towel and didn’t finish. I’m happy I stuck it out and persevered to the finish line. Everyone treats these events like a race and it is timed but both of these events are more about pushing yourself to the limits and more of a race against yourself if anything. I rode the Farwell instead of my MXYBB and I couldn’t have been happier. It’s a bit heavier even with light XC 29″ wheels and tires when compared to my MXYBB but I felt more confident with the dropper and the Pike fork. The Sram Eagle drivetrain is awesome with incredible range.