The USA Cycling MTB National Championships recently took place out in Winter Park, Colorado. We were represented well by several Dryve Ambassadors, as well as the majority of our Factory Team. One of our Factory riders, Darragh Hildreth had a phenomenal weekend, racing in the Women's Pro race, and as a first-year Pro, was knocking on the door of a Top-10 finish!!! She whipped up the play-by-play of how her race panned out, enjoy!
It’s crazy to think back about registering for my first mountain bike race two years ago, signing up as a CAT 2 rider at a local race in Oregon. I took second that day and thought, “I want to do more racing!”
Jump to present day and here I am, about to stand on the start line of the 2019 USA Cycling MTB National Championships, with some of the most accomplished women riders in the World.
The announcer calls out over the loudspeaker, “From Bend, Oregon, Darragh Hildreth.”
I take a deep breath and roll my way to the third row of the start grid in the Women’s Pro Field.
On the start line, I think back about the hectic 24 hours prior to arriving in Winter Park, Colorado. The night before we started our 17-hour drive from Central Oregon, Shane was literally putting the final touches on my brand new bike before we could hit the road! Cutting it close for our chance to ride and observe the course, we showed up on Friday, exactly at 12:00pm just in time to connect with our team for the course preview that started at 12:30pm! This was a great chance to spin out our legs and get a feel for what was in store for us the following day. Riding my new hardtail for the second time ever, I already felt comfortable and that this terrain was going to cater well to my strengths. There were big, long open climbs in the beginning, that lead to twisty, winding, singletrack descents. The only factor I felt was a threat, was dealing with the high altitude. The low point of the race course was over 9,100ft in elevation! Thanks to the past experience of my Nordic Skiing days, I remember how my body reacted in high elevation and made sure to take all the steps I could to minimize the negative effects of the thin air, like making sure to stay well-hydrated.
Flash back to the start line. I look down at the top tube of my bike and take a deep breath. All the physical work is done. Now is the time to make sure I mentally prepare myself for one of the biggest races of my mountain bike career. As the announcer is calling up the rest of the field, I close my eyes and visualize the course. I think about making sure to have a clean start and clip-in into my pedals smoothly. I replay my strategy in my head to remind myself to keep a steady pace since I’m racing 4 laps at altitude. I’m brought back to the present.
“Two minutes till start, ladies,” the announcer shouts.
I open my eyes, grab my pre-race Honey Stinger taking in some last minute calories. I double check I’m in the right gear, start my Garmin and ready myself into my attack stance.
“Thirty seconds ladies!”
I’m looking straight ahead and slightly twitching in anticipation for the gun to go off.“BANG!” The gun goes off and the group blasts forward. I clip in smoothly and sprint to match the speed of the group. Making sure not to get pushed or blocked in the first inside turn, I hold my line and throw my elbows out a bit to protect my position.
Other competitors were making surges before the first climb and cranking hard, jockeying for position as we ride up the hill. I respond to a few of these, but settle into the middle of the field. I decided not to burn too many matches by making surges or punchy moves and wanted to keep an even pace for my first lap. As a new rider in the mix, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to hang with the first five women. I would be positioned closer to the middle of the group and competing for a top 20. As the climb widened into a double track, racers around me start standing up out of the saddle and increasing the pace to pass other riders. I follow suit, matching a few of these moves to hold my mid-pack position, but don’t go after all of them, as I try to stick with my gameplan. It’s a mental battle to keep efforts reserved, as racers blast in front of me, dropping me back a couple spots, but I know it’s a long race and I’ll keep them close, not letting them out of my sight.
The course funnels into an uphill single track and I dipped in behind 2 other riders. By this time, the lead group was out of sight and the racing tactics begin in our chase group. I could sense antsy riders behind me, looking for any opportunity to pass. A wide, swoopy uphill switchback appears and the leader of our group takes the inside line, along with two riders behind me. I opt for the outside line and see the leader fumble and miss the inside line backing up the other riders. Making a quick sprint on my outside line, along with another competitor, we are able to miss the backup and break away from the group. Almost halfway through the first lap, nearing the top of the climb, I decide to make a move and pass the one rider right in front of me. I want to take the lead down the big, long descent so I don’t have to be concerned about any other riders in front of me and settle into a comfortable pace.
I’m feeling the flow down the descent and can hear one rider behind me. We work together for the rest of the lap and are together going into our second lap. Her name is Kelly Catale, riding for Seven Cycles.
“Nice job! Keep it up!” she says, while spinning up next to me on the double track through the Start/Finish area.
We roll together through the Feed Zone and Kelly cranks up her pace and rides away from me. I swallow up my Honey Stinger and take a quick swig from my bottle from the feed and brace myself for lap two. With the high pace from Kelly, I have to let her go, I burned too many matches on my first lap and want to slow my heart rate down. I need to find my cadence and prepare for the next three laps. I figure either she’ll succeed at staying ahead of me, or she will get tired from going this early and I can close the gap later on.
Keeping my pace through the second lap and looping into the third, it starts to rain heavily. My sunglasses begin to fog up and affect my vision, so I toss them to an awesome race volunteer and prepare myself for the man-made rock garden. Due to the rain, the rocks become slick, but thankfully, my line along the right side is perfect, getting me to dirt sooner compared to the other lines on the rock garden. The crowds are enormous around the rock garden giving me extra motivation not to crash. After surviving the rock garden, the weather decides to go for the worst and the hail begins to fall. On repeat in my head is “Churn and burn… churn and burn….churn and burn.”
The fourth and final lap is here and I’m beginning to see Kelly in front of me.
Going through the Feed Zone, Garrett, my teammate, shouts, “You’re in 11th place, she’s only thirty seconds ahead of you!”
This has me really giving it all I have, standing up on my pedals and cranking up the hills. She’s right there! On the descent, I’m trying to keep the flow and push the speed up. My legs are so tired and I can feel my right calf beginning to cramp, “Oh no!!” With all the twists and turns of the singletrack I’ve lost sight of Kelly. But I think I can still hear her, or is that my brain playing tricks on me?! I keep giving my best effort to push hard, coming out of the bushes and skidding onto the final straight, sprinting towards the finish line!
My body drops over the bars and I’m gasping for air. Kelly comes over and hugs me and gives me a high-five. We congratulate one another for having a great race. I haven’t met Kelly before today, but something about racing so hard, really brings people together, in addition to the fact that the MTB community is composed of some of the best people.
In the end, I finished 11th overall. My best result ever at the National level and a big accomplishment that I didn’t think was quite feasible this early in my career. When I set out my goals early in the season, one was to finish in the top 20 at the National level and then look to work my way up in the subsequent seasons. I’m super excited to have exceeded my goals and the new round of goals is pretty surreal as I look forward to my second season of racing in the Pro category. One of those new goals? Toe the start line of a World Cup race in 2020!